Call to aviation industry not to reject automation amid setbacks

The grounding of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft after two crashes and subsequent proposed software fixes "underscore the risks of automation", said Senior Minister of State for Transport Lam Pin Min yesterday.

"This does not mean that we slow down or reject automation," he added.

Rather, as the industry progresses, the basics, such as comprehensive proficiency and recurrent training for pilots, air traffic controllers and engineers, must never be compromised, Dr Lam said.

Speaking at the 7th World Civil Aviation Chief Executives Forum, he said: "We need to make sure that the human in the loop is able to understand the benefits and limitations of automation, in order to properly harness it; and in the unfortunate scenario that automation fails, to step in and intervene."

While investigations into last October's Lion Air crash and the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines flight last month - both involving the B-737 Max 8 - are ongoing, the plane's anti-stall system is believed to have been activated both times. This sent the aircraft into repeated dives that the pilots were unable to counteract.

Since then, Boeing has proposed software fixes to the aircraft Flight Control Computer.

The safety regulatory system must also keep pace with technological developments, Dr Lam told the gathering of about 120 industry leaders, policymakers and regulators from about 80 countries.


"As we adopt more cutting-edge innovations, it is also critical that adequate resources be dedicated to ensure that our safety regulatory systems remain competent and relevant," he said at the biennial event organised by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and held at the Singapore Aviation Academy.

Technological developments can help to reduce the risks that more extensive automation can bring about. In particular, with the greater use of simulators, the industry can better train the human in the loop to anticipate and respond to unusual situations, added Dr Lam, who also launched a new advanced Aerodrome Simulator.

The simulator for air traffic controllers can support higher display resolution, and an accurate out-of-window 360-degree view.

With growing air traffic, especially in Asia, the management of air space, airports and manpower will have to be enhanced to cater to this growth. Technology can and should be harnessed as a key enabler to support sustainable growth in this sector, Dr Lam said.

Another key area of focus is collaboration, Dr Lam stressed. He said: "International aviation has grown over the decades in large part because policymakers and regulators have recognised the importance of collaboration, not only to facilitate greater connectivity across states, but also to manage safety risks."

It will take innovation, close collaboration among the different stakeholders and strong leadership for sustainable aviation growth, he said.

Karamjit Kaur

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2019, with the headline 'Call to aviation industry not to reject automation amid setbacks'. Print Edition | Subscribe