B-737 Max crashes 'underscore risks' but this does not mean industry should reject automation, says Lam Pin Min

Engine parts of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 plane crash seen near the town of Bishoftu, south-east of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, on March 11, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - The grounding of 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 on Tuesday (April 9).

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

"What it means is that even as we progress, we should never compromise the basics such as comprehensive proficiency and recurrent training for pilots, air traffic controllers and engineers," Dr Lam said.

Speaking at the 7th World Civil Aviation Chief Executives Forum in Singapore, 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 - both operated with the B-737 Max 8 - are still ongoing, the plane's anti-stall system is believed to have been activated on both occasions.

This sent the aircraft into repeated dives that the pilots were unable to counteract, leading to the crashes.

Boeing has since then proposed software fixes to the aircraft's Flight Control Computer.

Dr Lam said: "It is in the interest of both manufacturers and regulators to ensure that there is adequate risk assessment and mitigation in any automation."

The safety regulatory system must also keep pace with technological developments, he told the gathering of close to 120 aviation leaders, policy makers and regulators from more than 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 told them at the biennial event organised by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and held at the Singapore Aviation Academy.

In fact, technological developments can help to reduce the risks that more extensive automation can bring about, he said.

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 at the Singapore Aviation Academy.

The simulator for air traffic controllers includes powerful graphics processors and laser projector displays that can support higher display resolution, and an accurate out-of-window 360-degree view.

With growing air traffic, especially in Asia, the management of airspace, airports and manpower will have to be enhanced to cater to this growth.

In this regard, technology can and should be harnessed as a key enabler to support sustainable growth in this sector, he said.

Another key area of focus for the industry is collaboration, Dr Lam stressed.

"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," he said.

Noting the key role that has been played by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in the area, Dr Lam said: "We also need to avoid a proliferation of norms and standards that would fragment international aviation.

"This is another critical role for ICAO. When doing so, there should be an emphasis on technical and operational considerations, so as to promote the safe and sustained growth of international aviation."

He further stressed: "There are abundant opportunities ahead for our sector, but we will need innovation, close collaboration among the different stakeholders, and strong leadership for sustainable aviation growth."

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