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Airbus turns to robots for in-flight emergencies

European jet maker Airbus is taking an unprecedented step to expand cockpit automation: onboard computers that will automatically maneuver jetliners to avoid midair collisions, without any pilot input.

Known for its pioneering use of computers and software to push the automation envelope, this time Airbus has decided to cross a new threshold in replacing pilot decisions with computer commands. For the first time, flight crews of Airbus planes will be instructed and trained to rely on autopilots in most cases to escape an impending crash with another airborne aircraft. Currently, all commercial pilots are required to instantly disconnect the autopilot when they get an alert of such an emergency, and manually put their plane into a climb or descent to avoid the other aircraft.

The change, which hasn't been announced yet, comes after lengthy internal Airbus debates and despite skepticism from pilot groups and even some aircraft-equipment suppliers.

In spite of significant pilot opposition, the proposed shift sets the stage for broader use of computerized safety systems down the road to protect commercial planes, business jets and other aircraft from other hazards, including flying into natural or man-made obstacles.

Airbus, a unit of European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co. and BAE Systems PLC, plans to start installing the computerized systems on its A380 superjumbo jets perhaps as soon as next year, pending regulatory approvals. It intends to gradually install them on all other Airbus aircraft, including retrofits for older models.

The proposed systems will ensure that all aircraft "respond correctly and quickly" to alerts with "less stress on the pilot [and] less potential for injury" to passengers, said Bill Bozin, a top Airbus safety official. He said some pilots now overreact to such cockpit alerts, making extreme maneuvers that can throw passengers around, and in congested airspace even end up putting the aircraft on a collision course with still other nearby planes. In rare circumstances, pilots would retain the option of turning off the autopilot and responding on their own.

The average passenger probably won't notice any difference in an emergency, but the concept already is prompting a fair bit of controversy in aviation circles. Larry Newman, a top safety official with the Air Line Pilots Association, said his group is wary because "this tends to lead to getting the pilot further and further away from the process" of responding to emergencies.

The design approach used by Airbus -- essentially trusting computers to react faster and more predictably than humans to midair alerts and then revert to normal flight -- is in stark contrast to Boeing Co.'s approach of relying on pilot judgment in all emergencies. Before Airbus publicly talked about its decision, Scott Pelton, Boeing's chief engineer for electronic systems on jetliners, said Boeing would remain "aligned with our fundamental philosophy," which "believes the captain is in charge."

Airbus turns to robots for in-flight emergencies - Saturday, May 27, 2006 -

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