The recent unfortunate Air France crash may have cost 228 lives, but the investigations into the cause for the crash are far from over. With the aircraft’s black boxes sunken to the depths of several kilometres, we may never be able to accurately ascertain the cause of the crash. However, of the many prevailing theories, one that interests me is that of fly-by-wire technology.
Most people may or may not know this, but most aircraft today are flown using fly-by-wire technology. What this means is that, the human is not in direct control of the aircraft. The pilot tells an on-board computer what to do and the computer then controls the flight surfaces to do it. There are pros and cons to this technology. In an extreme example of the F117A stealth fighter, it would be impossible to fly that craft manually due to its extremely non-aerodynamic shape. It would be like trying to fly a piece of rock.
Therefore, in most cases, everyone believes that fly-by-wire is beneficial in the long run. However, where Boeing and Airbus disagree on philosophically, is in the case of emergencies. Boeing allow the pilot to manually override the computer and fly the plane by feel, while Airbus believes that computers can react far faster and respond much better in an emergency. So, the question is which design philosophy is better.
On the surface, both companies have excellent safety records. But if I was to postulate my personal opinion, I think that Airbus is right, on one condition – that the control software must be well written and able to adapt to all sorts of emergencies.
Personally, I do not know enough about flying aircraft to know what sort of parameters need to go into controlling these things safely. However, I am guessing that there are a lot of them. On top of this, I doubt that the control software is able to adapt to unimaginable edge cases. We have just not come far enough in decision making software to accomplish this.
So, while I think that ultimately, computers should be put in charge of something as delicate as flying an aircraft, I do not believe that our software is quite there yet. We may have to lose a few more aircraft in order to successfully learn how to write proper flight control and decision making software, particularly in testing out rare edge scenarios.