The risks of Single Pilot Operations
• To date, there is no remote system, artificial intelligence, or technological development capable of replacing the situational awareness, the capacity to respond to unforeseen events or the communications management between two trained pilots on board an aircraft.
  • Mach82 Nº209

 María Fernández Izquierdo 


"We believe that it could be applied very soon, normally for phases of flight where two pilots are not necessarily needed in the cockpit”. These statements were made on January, 19th at a meeting with the media convened by the European Aviation Safety Agency. It was the Agency's executive director, Patrick Ky, who spoke.

Ky was already announcing the industry's intention to eradicate one of the pilots from the cockpit. Ky was already explicitly referring to the famous Single Pilot. A hidden, almost hidden debate, but one that the industry has been working on for several years with various trials behind closed doors. With these declarations, the Agency in charge of air safety in the continent announced a possible relaxation of the laws that dictate the need for two pilots in the cockpit.

The fact that EASA is already considering the option of providing a legal framework for the industry to finally realise its project to automate as much of the air operation as possible has put the professional associations on alert.

Airbus has been the first aircraft manufacturer to announce its progress in this direction. Its innovation division, Acubed, has been conducting pilot tests in California since last summer to advance autonomous technology for the next generation of short-haul commercial aircrafts, which Airbus says should be capable of single-pilot operations. This implies, according to the manufacturer, that a single-pilot commercial aircraft needs advanced autonomous systems that can take control of the aircraft and landing in the event that the pilot on board becomes unable to fly.

The question is, is there a technological development capable of ensuring that safety levels remain intact in such cases, and is the industry prepared to dispense with half - or even 100% in case of incapacitation - of the human factor in the cockpit?


The identified risks

The temptation to exclude a pilot from the cockpit is not new. For years, the industry has been looking for solutions to reduce costs by automating human tasks. The fear and misgivings about this trend have not only come from professional associations. The FAA and NASA have been conducting studies for more than a decade on the risks of excluding a pilot in the cockpit, analysing the impact this could have on different phases of the flight. Among several of their conclusions, they highlight the direct impact that removing the co-pilot could have on:

Task sharing. Normally, pilots divide up the tasks involved in the flight: while one assumes the part related to the flight (Pilot Flying), the other assumes the task of monitoring, task management and checklist and communications with control. With the Single Pilot, this second part would be done from the ground via computers or remote systems, considerably increasing the pilot's workload in the cockpit and directly concerning flight performance. In addition, it is important to remember the responsibility of the captain over the rest of the crew on board, a task that could be weakened if he or she does not have a pilot in the cockpit to delegate flight tasks to at any given moment.

Cockpit coordination. Pilot and co-pilot coordinate their tasks through constant communication, including the monitoring pilot's supervision of the work of his or her partner in charge of the flight. The elimination of a pilot in the cockpit would affect this communication, which often is based on non-verbal elements.

Responding to unforeseen events. According to FAA data, only one in ten flights responds accurately to the original flight plan parameterised in the aircraft's flight management systems. This means that many flights will require the ability of the human factor to mitigate the risks to safety from unforeseen events, which are largely dependent on situational awareness.

In addition, there is the possibility of a pilot becoming incapacitated during flight for medical reasons, which is more than likely the reason why an effective Single Pilot prototype with passengers has not yet been approved. In that case, a remote system without the situational awareness of a pilot in the cockpit should be able to fly and land the aircraft safely. Although all industry efforts are focused on this, to date no system or artificial intelligence has been found capable of replacing the situational awareness of a person "in situ".


  According to the study "Towards Single Pilot Operations: The impact of Loss of non verbal  According to the study "Towards Single Pilot Operations: The impact of Loss of non verbal communication on the Flight Deck" by the University of San Jose and NASA (2014), the number of pilot confusions at different times of the operation increases significantly when one of the pilots is not in the cockpit next to his or her partner.  



What ensures safety

The number of cabin crew has been greatly reduced in recent decades. First it was radio operators, then navigators, then flight engineers. The development of technology often goes hand in hand with the reduction of human resources in the work chain. It happens in all sectors, not only in aviation.
But, as former ECA president John Horne explains, there is a significant difference between reducing the number of crew members and leaving it at just one. Not only because an incapacitation would reduce the number of people in the cockpit to zero, but also because it must be remembered that the co-pilot is not just a backup to the captain. Both the captain and co-pilot have the tasks of a flight assigned to them, and their coordination and execution are 100% dependent on what the pilot next to them is doing.

“We often talk about when things go wrong - says Horne in a statement-. But we hardly ever hear about the many, many times when the presence of the two pilots, their anticipation, their intervention, and their professional judgement prevents any circumstance from ending in an event or incident. Nor do we hear in the press when the work of the two pilots in the cockpit solves problems and emergencies arising from situations that were not even remotely imagined by the engineers or designers of the aircrafts at the time they were built”.

Aircraft automatisms are based on algorithms that parameterise the possible responses to predictable situations. But most on-board emergencies always have some unforeseen element, the response to which depends almost exclusively on the situational awareness of whoever is in a given situation at any given time.

This does not mean that the professional communities are closed to the possibility of implementing remote control piloting systems in commercial aircraft in the future. However, the development of these systems must be carried out with absolute transparency, so that their evaluation and certification meet the highest safety standards. If this is not the case, it cannot be denied that there is currently no more effective safety system in the cockpit than two trained, adequately rested and fully qualified pilots. Everything else, for the time being, remains a pipe dream.

Cybersecurity is a separate issue. Are remote systems based on ground-to-air telecommunications completely secure? Can the communications system of a remotely controlled aircraft suffer a cyber-attack and become controlled by a hostile actor or hacker?

In 2011, Iran was able to jam a US drone flying over Iranian airspace and take control of it. Although the US authorities claimed that the drone was defective, Iran claimed to have found a failure in the communications link between the remote system and the aircraft, which allowed Iran to access its system and control it.

That episode underlined the need for a secure communications system, based on encrypted information exchange between the aircraft and the ground-based remote control systems. It is true that ten years have passed since that incident and that advances in cybersecurity have improved exponentially. However, communications security still relies on its encryption systems. And for commercial aviation, encryption can be problematic for two reasons, as highlighted by the US ALPA. First, because countries have different laws that regulate - and in some cases prohibit - the use of encrypted systems in their airspace, which would greatly affect the routes and flight plans of any international flight. Second, because encryption has delays in the transmission of data between systems, as well as latencies that can last up to two seconds and can alter the response capability of the remote pilot.

Subscribe by RSS




12/12/2021 | Patrona 2021. Toda una vida volando



Receive news from SEPLA


Enjoy the advantages of being a member of SEPLA 


Together we are stronger

Employment Offers

Jobs Abroad


Un proyecto para darnos voz

Read our latest magazine

Desprotegidos ante el ERTE