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‘Passengers – This is your AI Pilot Speaking …’

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As a frequent traveler, I appreciate the airplane’s Captain introducing themself before takeoff.  But under development are fully autonomous aircraft – both Civil and Military versions. Are you ready to fly as a passenger in a fully autonomous aircraft?  Are existing aviation safety regulations such as SAE Aerospace Recommended Practice ARP4761A sufficient to ensure safety?  Keep reading …

While autonomy is gradually being introduced to aviation via ground-based flight planning an onboard monitoring, true Artificial Intelligence (AI) is still not fully deployed on major aircraft as a means for sole control. Not yet.  Aviation requires new aircraft adhere to rigid standards such as ARP4761A for Safety and ARP4754B for Aircraft/Systems development.  While these standards are only recently released in 2023, they were under development for many years prior; that means ARP4761A and ARP4754B did not address artificial intelligence or machine learning directly.  However, ARP4761A requires a mandatory Safety Program Plan (SPP) for each aircraft and system; ARP4761A is intended to ensure all aircraft systems are safely developed and integrated.

How does ARP5761A help ensure aviation safety?  First, each new aircraft must develop an Aircraft-level Functional Hazard Assessment (FHA) which assesses the potential risks based upon aircraft type, size, complexity, engines, and other factors.  Next, a Preliminary Aircraft Safety Assessment (PASA) is developed for that aircraft.  Then, that aircraft and systems are assessed with System-level FHAs to assess each systems’ contribution to safety for each phase of flight.  Next, system-level Preliminary System Safety Assessments (PSSA’s) are developed for each system and continuously integrated with the PASA. 

Now, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning introduce potential non-determinism which must be analyzed and ensured to actually be deterministic while deployed on the aircraft for safety-related activities. That is done following strict formal language (compliant to RTCA DO-333) and Model-Based System Engineering (MBSE) per ARP4754B.

So, will autonomous aircraft be in our children’s future?  Yes, certainly. Will they use AI to help fly the aircraft?  Yes, certainly.  Will autonomous aircraft solely fly passenger aircraft in the next decade in the USA or Europe?  Not a chance. Zero.  But keep dreaming and aiming high …