How often do pilots skip checklist steps?

Board blames fatal overrun on pilot error.
Source: NTSB Issues Bedford Gulfstream IV Crash Report | Flying Magazine

Checklists were a major innovation in flying, and are now being pushed in health care. But as I research this, it’s clear that although pilots all swear by them, use is less than 100%. Perhaps less than 99% – and a 1% error rate is very high when there are hundreds of items on a flight.

It’s very hard to know the real number. But the pilots in this crash, both very experienced, did pre-takeoff control checks for less than 10% of their flights!

Data from a recorder installed in the airplane showed that in the previous 176 takeoffs, full flight control checks as called for on the GIV’s checklist were carried out only twice and partial checks only 16 times. The pilots on the evening of the accident skipped the flight control check, which might have revealed to them that the gust lock mechanism was still engaged.

This particular item – forgetting to unlock the “gust locks” – has been killing pilots since the first gust locks. Famous examples in the 1930s were the prototype B-17, and the head of the German Air Force. (Both discussed in my forthcoming chapter on standard procedures in aviation.)
Gulfstream IV jet with six on board - crashed and burned after failed takeoff.

First FAA-Approved Drone Delivery Is a Success, but Does It Matter? – IEEE Spectrum

First FAA-Approved Drone Delivery Is a Success, but Does It Matter? 

I’ve been tracking the potential for drone (Autonomous vehicle) delivery of packages since before Amazon proposed it. I’m generally very skeptical that it can play a major role in delivering routine packages. And I certainly thought Amazon’s claimed timetable was blowing smoke. (As it turned out to be.)

Basic issues include safety, landing somewhere in urban areas, weather (except where I live) and payload/range/weight. Longer range or bigger payload require a larger vehicle, which is more of a  potential safety hazard. Micro navigation (phone poles) might also be a problem, as stated in this IEEE article, but I can envision technical solutions to that issue.

Here is a 2013 IEEE article that makes the basic anti-Amazon case.  Amazon was talking about being ready in 2015!

Yet over a longer period, say before 2020, there are niche applications that will be feasible. Whether they will be economically sensible remains to be seen. Rather clearly, deliveries will start with small, high-value, urgent packages.  Here’s a  video about a rural demonstration of delivering meds.

Here is my comment to someone who said drone delivery was impossible because of theft and safety.

Theft is an issue, but there are many potential partial solutions. For example, once stolen the drone would not function. (It could still be stripped for parts, but that has possible solutions as well.) So it becomes an arms race/incentive system, just like stealing packages from your front door.

   Safety is an issue in cities, but suppose the drones become as safe as a delivery truck driving through your neighborhood. A six rotor drone is pretty robust. Safety is less of an issue in some regions. And there may even be ways to “crash safe,” including airbags, parachutes, etc.

Regulatory fear is likely to continue to be a big issue in the USA. In my opinion, that is a shame, and will destroy the US lead in the technology (for which there are many good applications – just probably not package delivery). So I’m glad to see Amazon is taking a role in proposing sensible regulation. 

First FAA-Approved Drone Delivery Is a Success, but Does It Matter? - IEEE Spectrum

General drone technology clearly has a productive future. But my guess is that the US will be pushed aside by other countries that are less hung up about regulating every possible problem. (E.g. Australia?)

Why RC drones won’t be a danger to small planes

The rules for flying radio controlled aircraft are under tremendous debate and change, mainly because of two new technologies that have together created a new business. The  technologies are tiny flight management systems costing about $100, and excellent lightweight cameras like the GoPro (invented by a UCSD grad). The new business is using drones for low-altitude photography (and eventually for other applications, although IMO not for package delivery).

Congress put the Federal Aviation Administration in charge of figuring out what rule changes are needed. So far it has done a slow and weak job. (One result is that the U.S. has lost leadership of the industry, and may even become a backwater. That is a topic for another day.)

Pilots are instinctively concerned about risks to manned aircraft, from unmanned aircraft. Much argument back and forth has ensued, but there is little or no modeling or investigation. (What happens when a 2 pound quadcopter collides with small plane at 140 knots? Apparently there have been zero experiments on the issue.)  Here is an interesting blog post on this issue.

Why See and Avoid Doesn’t Work – AVweb Insider Article.

My take on this issue is that the likelihood of serious air-to-air collisions is tiny. Far fewer than bird strikes, for example. A much bigger sour of injuries will be untrained idiots flying drones over crowds of people.

Why Malaysia Air 370 could not have been remotely controlled

I recently visited some friends and colleagues at Wharton to discuss my work on evolution of flying. Naturally, Malaysia Air  MH370 came up. We have continued the discussion by email since I got back. Here is a note I wrote, explaining why it’s impossible to preprogram a flight plan so that the pilots could not override it, if they were conscious.

Image

Notice the automatic circling when it reached Athens. Everyone onboard was dead.

Sid, overriding manual override  is designed to be impossible. The pilots always have override. Indeed, the first 2 items on some emergency procedures are:

1) Disengage autopilot

2) Disengage auto throttle

and there are specific buttons to make that easy to do in a hurry. (As well as by going into the Flight computer and reprogramming it, or rebooting it, etc. ) Continue reading

Latency in UAV operation (geeky)

An interesting question about how much latency is acceptable for UAV operation. http://lnkd.in/dx-BfVk  My answer, based partly on my radio control flying experience, is that it depends heavily on the context. 200 milliseconds is too long for stunt flying, but not a problem for flying larger UAVs at higher altitudes. The operator has to “dial in” their reflexes to the situation, just as sailors do with different sizes of sailboats.  Here’s an example where low latency is essential:  

A seeming paradox is that longer latencies are acceptable only at higher Stages of Control. (See my draft book for discussion of this concept.)  At the high end (what I call Computer Integrated Flying), if enough knowledge is embodied in the aircraft, the operator can pull back entirely from flying, and switch to “commanding” the aircraft.

Continue reading

NYT review of photo drone recommends illegal and unsafe behavior

This review really missed the boat on both law and safety issues for drones. Some of what it discussed is illegal (unfortunately – I think the present law against commercial use of UAVs is too strong). A lot of it is unsafe, or rather it will be unsafe in the hands of newbies who buy this expensive but very-easy-to-use piece of technology.    Review – The Phantom 2 Vision Photo Drone From DJI – NYTimes.com.

If you have the $1200 for one of these undeniably cool machines, and the interest, the best approach is simple: buy one, and give it to me.  More seriously, here’s some good advice about learning to do photography with these.  It’s written for photographers who fundamentally are not interested in the flying part, and it’s not nearly “sufficient” for safety, but it gives a good idea of what you are in for.

Here are two videos of idiots flying these vehicles and having nasty crashes.  After the break: my two exchanges with the NY Times about the article.

Continue reading

Amazon is blowing smoke about drone delivery

Amazon Delivers Some Pie in the Sky – NYTimes.com.

I’m not impressed by Google’s “aerial delivery.” It’s easy to demonstrate a show system. But it will be very hard to create a safe system that can deliver loads of a few pounds, at a distance of even a few miles, much less the 10 that Jeff Bezos apparently claimed. Or to deliver to a specific person in an apartment building.

Here’s a quick response I wrote on Andrew McAfee’s page about this.

I’m skeptical. There are real safety issues here, as well as weight/payload/power issues. To deliver a 2kg package 30 km will take a vehicle gross weight > 6 kg (rough numbers). And helicopters, unlike fixed wing,  are “fail-dangerous.” Not to mention problems of delivering to a specific person in an urban environment. So I call “pie-in-the-sky” on this.

I see others are being skeptical because of regulatory problems. Yet other countries are way ahead of U.S. on regulation, and I don’t think regulation is the fundamental problem. The real problems include safety and payload:

  • Helicopters (actually, multirotors) have very limited endurance and therefore range. You can put a big battery on them, but then you need a bigger machine to carry the weight.
  • They have limited payload. Four ounces is no problem; but 5 pounds requires, right now, a machine with a total span of about three feet.
  • At least six motors and props will be needed (called a hexacopter). Otherwise, failure of a single engine would cause an immediate crash. Even with six or more rotors, a total power failure, or a guidance  failure, causes a crash. In a crash, the operator has  zero control on where the machine ends up. This is unlike an aircraft.
  • A machine this size that crashes is big enough to kill someone underneath. Especially if some of the motors are still operating. Even professionals are very careful about what they fly over. You can see videos on Youtube of idiots flying over crowded beaches, but a few people have been badly hurt this way, and the number will grow.
  • Navigation using programmed routes is straightforward in clear areas, by using GPS-based-autopilots. But with obstacles (trees, buildings) a lot of development work remains. This problem, unlike the others, will be solved eventually by Moore’s Law.
  • If you use an aircraft (wings) instead of a copter, many of the safety issues get much better. But on the other hand, you need a much larger area to land in. You can’t land in someone’s back yard.

Most of these problems are due to laws of physics, not the capability of current electronics. In short, delivering packages is an active area of R&D, but it will be feasible only in  situations where it is almost useless:

  • When you will be flying in unpopulated areas
  • When you can afford to crash, and lose, a few percent of your vehicles.
  • When the load is small, and the range is short.

There may be  some cases that fit this description, but very few. For the next 5+ years, using drones for that don’t have to land remotely – mainly for remote sensing – is going to be the only practical application. Unless you have a military budget, of course.