Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Risk management when flying on autopilot

How many bloggers who write about things financial would ever think to read the “Risk Management Handbook”" (2009) put out by the Federal Aviation Administration and available for free download? Yeah, probably one. Since its primary target is pilots of non-commercial aircraft, sometimes the handbook reads like a driver’s manual. How long does it take for two aircraft flying toward each other at speed x to impact? How do you calculate rate of climb so you don’t fly into the side of a mountain? Why is it a really dumb idea to replace a bolt in your plane with one bought at the local hardware store?

Here I’m limiting myself to avionics. An automated (or advanced avionics) aircraft is essentially a two-screen system. The left computer screen is the primary flight display; the right screen is the multifunction display, which includes GPS with traffic and terrain graphics and a fully integrated autopilot. A typical autopilot system is the little black box pictured at the beginning of this post.

Although most of the aviation community believes that automation has made flying safer, what are some limitations of automation? First, pilots who fly automated aircraft tend to lose their stick-and-rudder proficiency. Second, when air traffic control notifies pilots of a route or approach change, the crew has to reprogram the unit. This normally occurs prior to takeoff and prior to landing, which means that “a flurry of reprogramming actions occurs at a time when management of the aircraft is most critical.”

Perhaps the most serious problem is that pilots can easily “slide into the complacent role of passenger in command.” Studies confirm that “humans are characteristically poor monitors of automated systems. When passively monitoring an automated system for faults, abnormalities, or other infrequent events, humans perform poorly. The more reliable the system is, the worse the human performance becomes. For example, the pilot monitors only a backup alert system, rather than the situation that the alert system is designed to safeguard. It is a paradox of automation that technically advanced avionics can both increase and decrease pilot awareness.” (7-10)

As trading becomes increasingly automated, we might do well to heed the words of caution from the world of avionics.

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