These are some of the issues that needed to be addressed before a free flight systems can become a mainstay of international airports: Pilots must be able to process information coming from instrument panels, maps, specialized navigational instruments; and In good weather pilots must be able to process visual information coming from outside and this includes hazardous objects, air traffic, terrain etc. (Wickens & Goh, 2003). Pilots relying on auditory messages can experience error – memory lapses – especially when messages are long.
A free flight system if it will be implemented will not create some sort of an artificial intelligence guiding the aircraft. This means that pilots will still have to make a decision especially when there are problems and in emergency cases where free flight can obviously encounter problems. For instance, “When pilots maneuver to avoid a point or volume in space … any combination of vertical (climb, descend) lateral (left-right) and longitudinal (speed, slow) changes is available (Wickens, Helleberg, & Xu, 2002).
There can multiple scenarios that the computer may not be able to predict and it is up to the pilot using free flight to make the best decision. Moreover, even if pilots have access to 3D visualization, this type of technology could not display information regarding the speed of other aircraft in the area of conflict. In other words there are so many things that the pilots needed to know but current free flight technology is still unable to help them with. This will lead to the discussion of creating a system that can use the best of both worlds – current air traffic management systems and free flight.
A typical aircraft where pilots are heavily burdened by responsibilities of instrument-panel scanning and outside-world monitoring. (Source: JPDPO, 2009) Another issue that needs to be resolved concerns security in a time when terrorism is on the rise. It is hard to dissociate free flight from autonomy, meaning, the pilots can operate on their own without directly communicating with ground controllers. If ever there are terrorists on board they will have the luxury of time and freedom of movement and delaying detection by the aviation authorities from below.
Autonomy could also mean that pilots can be isolated from others and if there is a security threat in the area it is possible that pilots may never know as they are fully focused on their planes and not mindful of the rest. The solution that will be outlined below will attempt to address not only technological challenges inherent in free flight systems but also on how to make it safe by allowing pilots to have access to information pertaining to the overall picture of the flight from the time they depart, when they are en route to their destination and finally when on their final approach before landing.
Moreover, there are other factors that must be considered in designing a free flight system. In a post- 9/11 world Americans are well aware of the folly of isolation. This means that the FAA, airline executives and managers of international airports must work together in conjunction with other government agencies especially when it comes to ensuring airline safety. Thus, there are government agencies like the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) that is tasked to initiate strategic changes in the United States especially when it comes to transportation.
According to their official website, the JPDO is the central organization that coordinates the specialized efforts of the Department of Transportation, Defense, Homeland Security, Commerce, FAA, NASA, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (JPDO, 2009). The JPDO is in the midst of developing the next generation air transportation system because of obvious problems that the agency was able to succinctly describe in the following statement:
By 2025 U. S. air traffic will increase dramatically, two to three times and that the traditional air traffic control system will never be able to manage this growth (JPDO, 2009). The JPDO is ready to develop technology and new protocols that will combine not only highly efficient equipment but also to enable pilots to have access to data needed for a safe pilot such as weather conditions and information concerning emergencies and other problems that may be waiting for them in the next airport. Possible Solutions One solution is to agree on a compromise between free flight and the use of humans as in air traffic controllers.
According to experts, “Even though pilots would be responsible for maintaining separation and awareness of immediate traffic, ATCos would still be required to oversee separation assurance, intervene under emergency conditions (failure of on-board traffic awareness systems), and monitor the transition of flights to managed airspace” (Metzger & Parasuraman, 2001). This makes sense and there is no reason why this proposal could not be accepted at least in the interim wherein free flight systems are still far from being perfect. Conclusion
There is no need to elaborate as to the need for a more sophisticated and highly efficient air traffic management system. The first concern is linked to the ever increasing volume of air traffic brought upon by globalization and increase in trade between highly industrialized countries and emerging economies. In the next few decades the world will see a sudden rise in the number of congested airports and also the inherent dangers associated when pilots jockey for position in the hopes of landing their aircraft in the shortest time possible.
The pilots are not only anxious to land their aircraft safety but expediently, airline companies are also concern about the unnecessary wastage not only in fuel but time and money spent on maintaining their aircraft as well as the level of customer satisfaction that can be affected every time an airplane is delayed from landing to take-off. Aside from reducing expenses a faster way to land aircraft will also increase safety as it will significantly reduce the number of airplanes encircling above the city.
Free flight is one of the obvious answers to this dilemma. It was already made clear as to the limitations faced by air traffic controllers. They are using antiquated equipment that can only see in two dimensions while they are dealing with realities that occur in three dimensions. The pilots are in a better position to decide for themselves because they are not worried about other aircraft they are solely focused on their own plane, whereas the air traffic controller who is in-charge of all the airplanes entering his area of responsibility.
But again it is not going to be that simple. If air traffic controllers are taken out of the equation then pilots will have to rely on technology to guide them. On one hand technology is the best guide because it is not prone to human error as compared to the highly unreliable auditory messages coming from air traffic controls (see Figure 1). On the other hand the technology is not yet perfect and when there is an emergency or when there is foul weather a pilot can be easily disoriented and again in need of air traffic controllers.
Air traffic controllers are also aware of other factors and other information that may not be available to pilots. This is easy to understand because air traffic controllers are in their turn and they know if there is, say, a military facility or ongoing military training in the area. They are also aware of the limitations of their radar equipment as well as the volume of air traffic in the area. These information can be very helpful in cases of emergencies.
Therefore the possible solution is to create a system where pilots can transition from the old system of traffic management to those that involved free flight. But a system must be in place where air traffic controllers can easily assert control especially if there are unforeseen problems that may hamper the pilot’s ability to control the plane.
Cummings, M. L. & S. Guerlain. (2007). Developing Operator Capacity Estimates for Supervisory Control of Autonomous Vehicles. Sage Publications. Human Factors. 49(1): 1-15. https://www.wired.com/1996/04/es-faa/.