What Are You Going To Do When They Come For You?

Like most people, I think the ubiquitous robot future is exaggerated. While headlines about machines going to take over our lives are everywhere, the associated artificial intelligence challenges abound and history suggests the economic party always continues with the machines going hand-in-hand with labourers anyway.

But, for the sake of a hype’s devil’s advocate, if you were leading a flight operations department in a reasonably-sized airline (not your uncle Tom’s Air Taxi with a PC-12 but an enterprise where 20+ aircraft can form an actual line in the air), where would you start to replace humans? After all, your basic job is maintained adherence to safety standards and optimisation of processes (and a potential 30% return on investment within a year): the soulless, salary-free, 24 hour-a-day working product of robotic process automation, once set on “repeat”, never stops for a bathroom break. Assuming a constant rate of scientific and engineering evolutions, you’d focus on standardised, high-volume, low time-consumption task and in 10 years we’ll have:

  • Flight-related tasks at 40-80% without human intervention, depending on willingness to invest.
    • Pre-flight preparation: manual tasks on the way out (or almost completely replaced through management by exception).
    • In-flight monitoring: minimum intervention and management by exception through constant connectivity and adapted aircraft (i.e. with intermediary adaptation layer installed even on older equipment because of the benefit of process efficiency and resulting competitive advantage).
    • Flight and cabin crew: difficult to replace in the foreseeable future for varied reasons (required human interaction by other humans, currently manufactured equipment standards, security issues, insurance requirements).
    • Post-flight processing: completely automated with no paper involved. Humans would only be needed for final decisions and to talk to other humans.
  • Regulatory compliance/manuals updates/documentation follow-up: automated, partly through higher levels of external auditing.
  • In cooperation with the head of ground operations: 90-100% process automation within 10 years (a USD 100 billion market without robots).
    • Baggage vehicle drivers, loaders, unloaders: replaced by self-driving vehicles and robotised assistants.
    • Fuelling service: same.
    • Toilet service, cabin cleaners: what’s not to automate and reduce costs by?
  • Together with the head of maintenance – 60% human-free by 2030:
    • Routine checks: droned already.
    • Fault analysis: much less engineering staff required through automated sensor processing and automated situational analysis. Final intervention by humans by exception.
    • Repair: depends on the devil in the details but can certainly be automated.
  • Emergency situation response teams: used in specific situations such as explosive device dismantling but generally a high degree of interaction with people required, so still largely human. 20% of decision support (and possibly a degree of manual coordination) could be removed in 10-20 years.

emergency_robot

Source: Robotics Tomorrow

On a side note, that means that, save for maintenance downtime, airspace congestion, and airport regulations, operational expansion would become considerably cheaper (I’d estimate 27% in labour cost reduction of the average 34% airline expense with a corresponding direct operational cost (fuel, depreciation) increase).

So, what’s an honest flight operations worker to do in 10 years? The robot may not have a plan but you do:

Step 1: list your job’s functions in great detail, from the mundane (“create weekly punctuality chart”) to the highly complex “negotiate new ground-handling KPIs based on repeated delays due to their statistically-substantiated understaffing policy”.

Step 2: Look for high-volume highly standardised low time-consuming actions to figure out what can be automated initially. I’m not referring to reading e-mail but e.g. approving reimbursement claims, driving a GPU to an airplane – same process day in and day out and therefore soon to be performed by a being that does not tire or require pay. Cross these out.

Step 3: The entries without a line through them show your upper hand.

(Step 4: Assess if your manager and his/her manager is a risk taker since this outsourcing will take some entrepreneurial initiative to start).

dilbert robot

Source: Dilbert

I can start: can a robot write this blog? Probably not. It can seek examples of safety improvements in other industries and suggest other new information while I sleep (compiling information lists) but to apply concepts such as RPA to flight operations requires me. The recipient (could it be an automated posts crawler?) should not see the difference but hopefully they will have enough time to create something of their own based on my conjectures (that’s why I look forward to your comments below!).

All this panic seems to me misses another point: the future may not be AI-based but IA-focused. History suggests the machines will augment your intelligence in order to free your time and liberate cash to e.g. implement customer service in-flight initiatives (that is what emotionally deprived sentinels can’t do). So, if the robots could allow you to create your own job of the future what would your Kraftwerk be? Start drafting it now and get background preparations ready (i.e. study for it) because they’re already here.

Flight Operations challenge…accepted.

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What Has an App Ever Done for You?

A Wish List

There’re two ways to go about appifying your professional pilot life: the overhaul approach and the immediate gratification, solve-an-issue-at-hand one. Most (including this post) fall in the latter.

Incremental innovation has already started in general aviation: you can now handle most aspects of VFR flying through your phone, log your hours and use your tablet as an extra pair of instruments (I’m only linking to apps I use). And why not? 21st century pilots have a different set of skills for the more technologically-sophisticated machines coming off factory lines (those deep in IT front lines I’ve talked to don’t use such adjectives because the specs are five-plus years old).

But we all know this. Instead of a list of my lifestyle choices, I would like to offer a set of ideas what would solve real airline flight operations challenges using a connected tablet or smartphone now part of everyday operations. I hope someone will comment that most already exist.

  • FOC app 1: Which runway? We’ve all been there: parked at a stand near the midpoint of a single-runway airport and weather conditions permit either direction for departure. Personal experience usually resolves this (aka your gut feeling) but I vouch that it can be quantified with a combined crunch of your company’s past fuel burn (operational statistical database) along either direction, a quick weather analysis along one’s route, and current ATC traffic data.
  • FOC app 2: What delay remedy? The possible actions pilots can take if their departure gets delayed are not monumental. Given situational data at the last point of connectivity, a tablet can offer optimal solutions for such a situation (or at least an operations control centre recommendation): higher cruise speed, rerouting, delaying departure even more, diversion (perhaps through a subscription on-request-based charge?).
  • FOC app 3: Which airport? When it comes to computing outcomes from a large set of restricting conditions, machines are unbeatable. Given the right data, a tablet should be able to provide the most adequate and suitable aircraft destination in case of an engine fire (a performance model, current aircraft position and status, weather and facilities at reachable options). The only major issue would be of data quality.
  • FOC app 4: Extra instrument backup – in an ideal world, the tablet’s screen can be connected to the ARINC 629 bus and therefore an additional stand-by instrument backup for electrical supply failure can be created. If the fabulous expense for such a Type B application does not justify the “nice-to-have”, maybe using the device’s internal accelerometers could be a compromise? I agree the instrument replications are not very reliable (though my test flight of an app that claims to provide this in a glider was great fun!) but I see this as a question of engineering over time.
  • FOC app 5: Digital NOTAMs: Survey a group from all walks of pilot life about one adjective to associated with Notice to AirMen: unreadable. Eurocontrol’s initiative to digitize these from 2010 got nowhere. Portable devices can handle graphical representation (e.g. closed taxiways on an airport chart; active restricted areas mashed on Google Maps) and briefing systems can track whether a pilot flew the same route the day before and has read the text. The best explanation on this so far is as with many other ideas that it’s too high development cost for a nice-to-have.
  • FOC app 6: Where are the flight’s ground services/luggage/passengers? If applications can direct ground staff to flight assignments, they could also report service status to a pilot-in-command. Better yet, there could be two-way communication.

Most of these require a large store of statistical data and extensive computational analysis locally, which does challenge the available portable hardware. Still, they are already possible.

Yet, is there any point in “nice-to-haves”? If you take three of your airline’s pilots, one data analyst and one app developer in a room to see what the front-end operator group needs that the back-office could deliver – the results should save you time and money (and I’d be glad to hear about it!).

Flight Operations Challenge…Accepted.

EFBs Don’t Matter

When you need to hang a painting, you don’t think about the nail, you just hammer.

 

Once upon a time (2003), the Internet was full of jokes about the iPad. Just the name, containing the word “Pad” gave way to innumerable memes (disclaimer: one was mine).

The little tablet that could did not die in humour heaven but grew into a “didn’t know you needed it till you got it” general users’ unicorn. And then, five years later (2008), it appeared as a tool in the pointy end of an airplane (disclaimer: I still don’t own one but my superiors force its use).

It’s now been 11 years since MyTravel (later part of Thomas Cook) pioneered the use of an iPad as an electronic Technical Log (ok, trialed), so a review of the success score of these devices is in order. However, Googling “EFB project failures” and related terms does not yield an obvious answer (why look for successes when planning an IT transformation of operations?).

Either EFBs provide an implementation unicorn as well, or the question is phrased incorrectly. If “the average large IT project runs 45% over budget, 7% over time, and delivers 56% less value than expected.” (McKinsey and The Project Management Institute), how does this magic bullet work?

To paraphrase Nicholas Carr, it doesn’t because the ammunition does not matter. You don’t think about a nail when hanging up a painting, you just hammer.

Perhaps the failure as such does not exist, only the efficacy of utilisation of the iPad (or Windows, or Android tablet). Does the EFB fit with a general operational digitisation strategy as an end-tool of two-way communication? If paper provides the same result, why change?

I would eagerly like to know how the following experiment goes for you: put an IT analyst, a Flight Ops engineer, a Pilot, and a Business Analyst in a room to find out how tablets fit in your operation (disclaimer: I’ve yet to hear of an airline that’s done this). Do not let them leave the room without 6 milestones the devices should deliver on.

What’s to fear? The technology will be obsolete in 3 years (MyTravel assumed so already in their pioneer project) but the addiction to convenience will not fade. A designated project owner (an EFB Manager) would be able to transform an implementation into a learning experience (since clearly, there’s no documented failure).

While we’re brainstorming possibilities, how about suctioning from this digital data source via a central enterprise data service bus? What if the iPad could feed data into a standardised format for a live company health dashboard, together with devices for technicians (eTechLog), sales agents (order log), customer feedback terminals (at the airport, online), on-board sale web-based order forms?

Flight Operations Challenge…Accepted.

Big Data, A Stick

dsc05804Airplanes streaming half a terabyte of data per flight…83% of travellers having a smartphone and generating three gigabytes per month…every backoffice system storing eons of log files…

“The Big, Complicated Tomorrow has arrived” say business theorists. “It’s data-driven.”

“What’s brown and sticky?” say I.

A stick.

Because technically, tomorrow becomes reality at midnight every day. And Big Data is just a stick.

Wooden poles have been around for a very long time and so has the idea of the data-driven enterprise (the 1970s, oddly a date some iPhones consider The Big Bang of computing, meaning they crash if you try to reset them to any earlier time). Now, however, there are more sources with an increased volume flowing per information channel.

And if we live in the information age, that of tidal waves of data continuously crashing over (and into) us, what are we so well informed about? Well, I say it depends on how you apply the wooden tool.

A stick pokes, digs, and uncovers unseen gaps. Let’s take an imaginary 6-hour sector which arrives late 65% of the time in the last 2 months. Reports to Operations Control dispatchers indicate that ground staff does not have enough time to prepare the aircraft during turnaround. Ground services have reported that police have to first remove at least two drunken and unruly passengers per arrival, hence the rotational delay.

A more involving question would be “Why in the last 2 months?” Let’s expedite the imaginary discussion: catering has started to load 30% more alcoholic drinks since the start of the new season combined with “in-your-face special offer” adverts, hence higher sales and QED.

Investigating this has taken two full weeks of the OCC manager’s time. Correlating the digitalized data sources (delay times, load factor, cause of police intervention, cost of postponed ATC slot) with the (initially unsuspected) catering company reports has been a manual task, not least because incoming and outgoing merchandise gets noted using pen and paper (a copyrighted process). This assembly has been required to answer the next and most important question: how much to reduce the volume of alcohol available without impacting sales considerably and simultaneously reducing the delay which started the investigation.

Here, a digitization gap cracked open without even focusing on Big Data’s preferred fuzzy source milieu (in this example, product placement).As with all digital fads, Captain Obvious would suggest to first establish where the enterprise should be in order to create senior-level guidance.

To get you started on creating magic with The Stick, I propose an action plan:

  1. Call in an Ops Engineer, a Technician, an IT Analyst, a Flight Dispatcher, a Sales rep,
  2. Ask each one to name the biggest (in terms of volume) source of data they would not be able to live without on a Post-IT. Even better, make the preferred origin an unstructured one.
  3. Stick these on a white-board table with the following columns:
    1. name, source, size, data type, transmission mechanism, storage point
  4. Ask each one to name what that parameter could be used for if anything could be done with it. Inter-connected (aka chewed) with others into a KPI,printed on a banner at the entrance, fed to an unstructured data analyser: anything.
  5. See if (and let me know if) anything interesting comes out.

 

Flight Operations Challenge…Accepted.