Is Artificial Intelligence the Future of Civil Aviation?


When Artificial intelligence (AI) first emerged in the 1950s it was simple computers used to calculate algorithms. Today we have such advanced AI that we can now run businesses and complete tasks without needing people on the ground. We will look at how the aviation industry uses AI, from airports to the skies.

What is AI?

An artificial intelligence (AI ) system controls software functions created by machine learning. The data is collected and used to train the program, rather than the source code (which is the code that a computer programmer uses to write a program).  Confused? Let’s have a look at some of the ways the aviation industry utilises AI.

In our airports

Until recently, Australia’s incoming and outgoing flights have been limited to those trying to get home or fleeing unsafe countries. With the Covid-19 pandemic, national and international travel all but ground to a halt for many airlines. With travel starting again, smart AI technology has never been more critical in our airports. From contactless check-in and bag drops to managing physical distancing, our airports are seeing the benefits of AI technology.

Self-check-in has been utilised for over 20 years, with the first self-service check-ins operating in the US in the mid-90s. In addition, Contactless drop-off, and biometric check-in is becoming ubiquitous in most major airports. 

It turns out that AI is now helping people to commence travel again. Major airports are using the technology to gather data and identify patterns in queue sizes and security requirements to allow people to pass through airports whilst maintaining physical distancing and allowing time for screening processes.

Computer vision, a technique that uses cameras and machine learning algorithms to monitor complex ground servicing activities in airports, can detect safety issues in real-time or sound an alarm when services take longer than expected.

AI has shown that it can help ensure a safer travel experience while reducing costs and preventing long delays.

Baggage Handling

With passengers comes baggage, and a lot of it!   Baggage handling in airports has remained the same for around 60 years. However, new AI technology, Bags ID Network, which uses photo recognition to track and reconcile baggage for each traveller, has been developed recently. Based on previous trip data, the technology can forecast the number of bags each customer will likely carry. This helps with staffing, aircraft cargo space and fees for baggage.

This unique technology will end the traditional paper tag, which can be lost in transit and is environmentally unsustainable.   The photo-recognition software takes a picture of the passenger’s bag and records all the dimensions, colour, texture, individual stickers, dents, and scratches. The bag is then matched to that passenger for as many years as they use that bag. If it gets lost or misplaced, a simple scan with a smartphone or mobile device can match it to individuals, who could also follow their bag in transit through their airline’s app. It’s convenient for airports, airlines, and passengers.

Aeroplane Maintenance

Delays and cancellations can cost airlines massive amounts of money.   Unplanned maintenance is the leading cause of airline delays, with airlines having to pay compensation to travellers unable to leave airports. Most airlines use predictive analytics for their fleets to solve this costly problem.

Predictive maintenance solutions help airline carriers manage data from aircraft health monitoring sensors. The computerised systems grant technicians access to real-time and historical data from any location.

Technicians can bring this information up on mobile devices or computer desktops. Alerts, notifications, and reports on the aircraft’s current condition allow employees to spot issues before they occur. The system also ensures that spare parts are ordered and available through an online inventory.

Crew Rosters

Crew management is a massive job made more accessible and more efficient by AI. Airlines utilise management solutions to address pilots’ fatigue risk due to constant changes in time zones, long days, and scheduling changes.

Crew rostering systems allow schedulers to rely on data about predicted fatigue to reduce risks before they occur.

Passenger comfort in the air

Even your in-flight snacks and meals come to you with the compliments of AI. The sandwich you have with your glass of wine is tracked from the moment it is created to your last mouthful. The airlines use management systems to predict how much food they need to allow for cutting down on waste.

Low-cost airlines that don’t offer an in-flight meal also have to predict how much food they will need to have available for purchase. While the food may not be costly, each item you load onto an aircraft costs money.

Pilots and cabin crew

Even before Covid-19, airlines were investigating the use of digital flight assistants to help pilots deal with busy schedules and demanding timelines. Think of Siri or Alexa for pilots. 

Trials are ongoing for this technology. According to researchers at the Schools of Social and Political Sciences and Computing and Information Systems, University of Melbourne, pilots are willing to work with the new technology.

AI has been a massive part of aviation technology for decades. You may have heard of Autopilot or Auto throttle systems. Most modern airliners are equipped with advanced software that automates repetitive, primarily low cognitive demand procedures. These systems remove some of the workloads of pilots, and apart from the essentially hands-on tasks of take-off and landing, most modern aircraft can fly almost on their own

What of your cabin crew? Qatar Airlines claims to be the first airline to launch a virtual cabin crew and recently launched a virtual reality metaverse, named the Q-verse, where you meet Sami (a 3D virtual flight attendant) to experience the entire boarding process from check-in to your allocated seat. Enter here to see the cabin and interact with virtual cabin staff.

Emirates became the first airline to launch its Virtual Reality app, which offers users interactive cabin experiences onboard Emirates’ A380 aircraft and Boeing 777-300ER planes. Users can choose virtual items from the onboard lounge and even explore the cockpit.

On most other airlines, virtual cabin crews already exist. Passengers now receive full safety instructions from the virtual assistant while the human flight attendants double-check luggage compartments, seat belts, and seat backs.

Where to in the future?

  • Boeing has an ambitious dream to build their aircraft in the metaverse, according to a Reuters report, December 2021.  The future factory will be a 3D metaverse where mechanics from around the world work with robots to design and eventually build aircraft.
  • Rob Hecht – Professor of marketing at Baruch College in New York, has predicted that soon passengers will be able to fly whilst interacting entirely through virtual reality.
  • Autonomous passenger liners are not currently available, but the further we advance with AI technology, the more likely it will be part of our aviation future.

Before you start worrying about AI taking your job, machine learning and AI experts say that most of us aren’t likely to lose our jobs to autonomous systems any time soon.  However, the data and technology that we have had at our fingertips for some time now could be the thing that gets us flying safely again.

How can the Civil Aviation Academy help you?

The Civil Aviation Academy Australasia Pty Ltd (CAAA) has been providing training and consultancy to the aviation and related industries since 2001.

Aviation-specific experience in our team is undeniable. Our facilitators have held or currently hold the following:

  • Chief Pilot and Chief Flying Instructor roles and approvals.
  • CASA Approved Delegations as Examiners of Airmen.
  • Commercial Pilot License, ATPL Pilot License and Grade 1 Instructor Ratings.
  • Airlines and Simulator Approved Check and Trainers; and
  • CRM Facilitator for Australian and Overseas Airlines including KHUFAC material development in the late 1980s.
  • All our assessors have over 25 years of commercial aviation experience as a minimum.

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