This week I'm taking a slight departure from my usual pattern - because I can't stop looking at all the angles on the horrible news about Ethiopian Airlines 737 flight. So rather than three separate stories that tell us what's going on this week - I'm going to walk through how this story opens our eyes to issues in Automation, Design and Communication in 2019.
The Automation Angle - Have modern aerospace companies have taken automation too far?
There's an old joke about airplanes. In the future - planes will only need a dog and a pilot. The dog is there to bite the pilot in case they try to touch the controls.
Today's planes require very little flight control. They operate largely on automated systems that "fly by wire" to their destination, following turns, ascent and descent by what a computer says it should do. Over time, the automation has gotten so complicated that many pilots aren't as skilled at manually flying as they used to be. https://www.theverge.com/2019/3/15/18267365/boeing-737-max-8-crash-autopilot-automation
The 737 Max 8 is a great example of how far automation has taken us, and while the black box is still being audited - there's a lot of assumption that automation went too far here.
We likely won't stop automating 'all the things'. Planes will continue to be automated so long as technology keeps moving forward, but as practitioners (in this case - pilots), we need to find ways of ensuring that the humans behind the machines still fundamentally understand what the machines are doing. Maybe flight schools need to start teaching AI in addition to flying.
The subtle design of the 737 Max 8 may have been what lead to the crash
In this CBC article - there's a great breakdown of how and why the 737 Max 8 is a great airplane, but also why it has crashed two times in just the past few months. In short - a new engine design required a different placement on the plane's wings - leading to a different weight and angle of ascent, and higher likelihood of a stall... If the pilot was not aware of the design change. https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/boeing-737-business-impact-1.5054535
Subtle design changes can lead to major errors. We've seen this in an array of industries from retail to finance to aerospace. The impact isn't always fatal, but when we don't do a good enough job of communicating these changes - things break. Hence the next topic:
Pilots are furious over their lack of awareness of the 737 Max 8 updates
Since the story hit, pilots have been talking about their frustration with their airlines over the lack of education and communication offered around differences to the model. An executive at Boeing has spoken up about their internal debate over how much information they provide to pilots - saying:
“the company had decided against disclosing more details to cockpit crews due to concerns about inundating average pilots with too much information—and significantly more technical data—than they needed or could digest.”
One pilot in particular responded by saying that it's:
“unconscionable that a manufacturer, the FAA, and the airlines would have pilots flying an airplane without adequately training, or even providing available resources and sufficient documentation to understand the highly complex systems that differentiate this aircraft from prior models,”
When we change systems and don't allow our stakeholders to dive into those changes on their own terms - everyone suffers. This applies to every industry - whether we're designing software, physical goods or life or death vehicles. Transparency in our design work only makes our lives easier as both the designers and users.
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