“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, November One Two Three Four (N1234), Emergency Autoland activated, standby for more information.”
This is what a tower would hear if the Emergency Autoland (EAL) system is activated on some new planes. If you’re a passenger on one of them, it’s definitely something you’d want it to have if your pilot(s) weren’t able to fly.
While autopilot has been a thing for aircraft for a long time, a recent e-mail to pilots from the FAA warns them about what to expect if this happens. The EAL can be tripped off in several ways. If the EAL system detects erratic flying from the pilot, it stabilizes the aircraft and then checks to see if the pilot is responsive. If it gets no response from a pilot, it activates an emergency descent, taking the aircraft to a lower altitude. It’s possible that cabin pressure was lost and that the human pilot could wake back up with more air pressure. If it still gets no response, it will initiate an autolanding sequence to make sure the aircraft doesn’t crash.
It’s also possible for the system to be activated by a pilot experiencing a medical emergency or even passengers and other flight crew if they discover, to their horror, that the qualified pilots are unconscious or dead. This has happened in Hollywood and on TV, to great dramatic effect, but future TV show writers will find that the boring reality is that the crew or passengers will be able to activate the EDL and then buckle in for a safe landing.
At that point, the system handles all of the flying tasks, including sending out warnings to control towers and other aircraft. After the initial message quoted above the system gives everyone else 25 seconds to clear the airspace. It then transmits something like this:
“N1234, pilot incapacitation, XX miles southwest of KABC, landing KXYZ airport. Emergency Autoland in XX minutes on Runway 00.”
Now that everyone is out of the way (or they’d better be), the system uses a connected and updated electronic map, keeping itself out of hazards like bad weather and restricted airspace. It also announces to the crew and passengers letting them know what’s going on and that they’ll be coming in for a safe landing. It even informs passengers of upcoming maneuvers and displays its plan on a video display for review.
Most people would like to get some assurance from a human that things are OK, so the system even includes a push-to-talk button for passengers or crew to talk to air traffic controllers as it avoids dangers like known obstacles and terrain.
Next, it announces its updated intentions and updates its ETA on the radio to let everyone know what’s coming. It doesn’t know if there are people or aircraft on the runway, so it’s necessary for the airport to get everyone out of the way. The EAL system can’t stop or take instructions from air controllers, so everybody has to work around it for now.
The FAA says that the system chooses an airport to land at based on several factors. Weather, wind, runway length, and whether the airport has a tower are all considered by the program. Along the way, if it loses the GPS signal, it flies straight until it gets the signal back, and then resumes landing.
Finally, the plane comes in for a landing and brings itself to a stop. Autopilots have been landing planes for decades, so this is known to be safe under all but very unusual conditions. Once stopped, it transmits a message over the radio letting everyone know that it’s ready for someone to approach it and take care of the plane and its occupants. It can’t park itself off the runway, so somebody else will have to do it.
“Disabled aircraft on Runway 00 at KXYZ airport,” is all it can say at that point.
From what I can find online, a number of different companies are developing and installing the system on planes. Among them is Garmin, a company known by consumers for its GPS products. The company has been selling aviation navigation products for a long time, and this system is one of the latest things it has been doing.
Here’s a video of Garmin’s system being tested:
(Featured image is a screenshot from this video.)
Cars May Eventually Do Something Like This
Aviation has always been ahead of cars when it comes to autonomy. As pointed out in the video, they’ve had autopilot and autolanding for quite some time, but now they’re putting it all together for an emergency system that passengers and crew can use without any flight training.
Car manufacturers offering advanced driver assist features often have a feature that can safely bring a non-responsive driver to a stop, as we can see with Nissan’s ProPilot:
During the Tesla Semi unveil in 2017, Elon Musk said that the trucks would have not only Autopilot, but the ability for the trucks to automatically come to a safe stop in the event the driver is unresponsive, and then can even contact emergency services to bring an ambulance for the driver. Instead of careening through cars full of families and then killing the driver when it finally hits an obstacle, everyone gets to go home at the end of the day.
The great thing we have going here is that advanced technologies aren’t forcing humans out of the loop entirely. Planes need pilots, trucks need drivers, and cars need us, too. What we are adding here is the ability for the vehicle to bring us to relative safety in the event things go wrong. We can still keep hold of the wheel when we are able, but we don’t have to worry about what happens in the event we can’t.
I don’t know what the next steps are, but with self-driving cars, it may be possible to do a whole lot more than stop and call for help. We might get to the point where our cars can take us for medical assistance immediately in the event something bad happens. It’s not hard for a vehicle to be able to know where the hospitals are, and could even have the ability to let the hospital know that it’s on the way with an unresponsive driver.
Whether it was caused by heart problems, diabetes, or anything else, time is life in these sorts of situations. Also, we aren’t always close to hospitals. Instead of waiting for the time it takes for 911 to dispatch an ambulance, then waiting for the ambulance, then waiting for the ride to the hospital, we could get to help a lot faster with autonomous vehicles in the future.
Back in the Sky…
Going back to aircraft, we are likely to see some synergy between autonomous aircraft and autonomous vehicle technology in the next few years.
For one, these autoland systems are in their infancy. There’s a lot of room for improvement. At present, the FAA says that the EAL systems can’t look at NOTAMs, or bulletins telling pilots to stay out of certain places or to look out for certain hazards. It also doesn’t avoid certain types of restricted airspace, like an event where the President attends. This could spell disaster if the military decides a plane running EAL needs to be downed because they aren’t sure if it’s a medical emergency or a hijacking. It also isn’t capable of avoiding collisions with other aircraft, and I don’t think I need to explain why that’s an issue.
Vendors like Garmin will eventually be able to integrate what we learn building self-driving cars into these EAL systems, allowing much safer operation. Anything is safer than nothing when it comes to a disabled or deceased pilot, but being able to avoid all of those hazards will be a big improvement that brings a lot more trust to the system.
Other issues with current EAL systems are that they can’t take commands from the tower and can’t see obstacles on runways, like other planes, construction, or ground personnel. Computer vision and processing of voice commands could make it possible for these systems to eventually safely join the queues of aircraft waiting for a safe landing, see and avoid obstacles, and more.
At the end, ground autopilot can teach planes a lot about being able to get the plane and its passengers off the runway and to a safe parking spot in the event of an automated landing. This would increase safety of such systems greatly, not only for the people on the plane and other planes that might hit it, but also for the responders who would be a lot safer if they didn’t have to go out on a runway to check on the pilot.
There’s definitely a lot of room for these different types of autonomous vehicle teams to be communicating and cross-pollinating their approaches and technology. We would all benefit.