Why AI can’t replace air traffic controllers

After hours of routine operations, an air traffic controller gets a radio call from a small aircraft whose cockpit indicators can’t confirm that the plane’s landing gear is extended for landing. The controller arranges for the pilot to fly low by the tower so the controller can visually check the plane’s landing gear. All appears well. “It looks like your gear is down,” the controller tells the pilot.

The controller calls for the airport fire trucks to be ready just in case, and the aircraft circles back to land safely. Scenarios like this play out regularly. In the air traffic control system, everything must meet the highest levels of safety, but not everything goes according to plan.

Contrast this with the still science-fiction vision of future artificial intelligence “pilots” flying autonomous aircraft, complete with an autonomous air traffic control system handling aircraft as easily as routers shuttling data packets on the internet.

I’m an aerospace engineer who led a National Academies study ordered by Congress about air traffic controller staffing. Researchers are continually working on new technologies that automate elements of the air traffic control system, but technology can execute only those functions that are planned for during its design and so can’t modify standard procedures. As the scenario above illustrates, humans are likely to remain a necessary central component of air traffic control for a long time to come.

Read the full article from The Conversation

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