Stream Your Flight Data to the FAA?
A team headed by an award-winning professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at the school as well as a 5,600-hour pilot, has come up with a really cool idea: mining data from flight data recorders to identify anomalies. Check out our news story on the subject here. The researchers use algorithms to group together similar datasets from different flights and then spot anything that seems out of the ordinary. For instance, the group's initial research showed a pilot on one flight using an unusual flap setting — that one must have stuck out like a sore thumb — and descending below glideslope. Once the data analytics tool identifies such an out-of-the-ordinary event, analysts can then take a closer human look to see if the event represented a normal operation or if it was an indicator of a problem that might someday cause an accident. If the latter seems to be the case, the airline can take measures to remedy the situation.
Exactly what kind of measures those might be is the subject that worries pilots unions. It's the old concern that the airline is going to be looking over their shoulder at every move, making every flight, in essence, another checkride. The subject is far from academic. With careers, seniority and dollars on the line, most pilots are loath to let the airlines or the feds have any more data on them than is already in the contract. There is already a program in place to let airlines take a limited snapshot of pilot performance. Flight Operational Quality Assurance (FOQA) is a voluntary program intended to do much of what the MIT research project is looking to do, but in a limited way and with protections and perks for pilots written into the agreements.
Data reporting has never been a touchy subject for pilots of light airplanes because there was no way to generate or share any useful kind of data, but that might be changing. The airplane I regularly fly, the Cirrus SR22, has built in engine data recording, which the operator of the airplane — in my case, this was shared ownership provider PlaneSmart — can use to monitor engine parameters in flight. This can be very useful to monitor trends and spot hot spots before they become emergencies, which is how PlaneSmart uses the data.
It's not hard to imagine this kind of data monitoring going to the next level. With the current sophistication level of light airplanes, with GPS, AHRS and FMS common, a limited set of flight parameters, including altitude, airspeed, attitude parameters, density altitude, and bank angle, among many others, could easily be made available to the FAA (or some other agency or entity) for monitoring.
One thing the analysts could do with these morsels of information is try to spot, as Hansman's team is working to do, anomalies. What are some pilots doing that doesn’t jibe with what the data analysis would expect to see under those circumstances? Granted, this would be a lot more difficult in the GA world, as there are so many different kinds of airplanes flying so many different kinds of missions that finding that common data set from which to compare could be a challenge.
But in theory the benefits of such a data-monitoring program could be tremendous. By spotting the kinds of pilots who have accidents — and I am of the opinion that many GA accidents are caused not so much by "pilot error" as by "pilot predisposition" — the feds could, again in theory, remediate and thereby cut the accident rate.
Could this ever happen? Maybe. But one big obstacle would be the reluctance of many pilots to submit to this kind of monitoring. Some of the most reluctant would doubtless be those most worried about having their flying behaviors put under the data-scope becaue the like to push limits. Others would feel the monitoring was a violation of their right to privacy — if they did nothing wrong, why should their flight data be subject to government review? Yet others would simply fear an agency, the FAA, that they have come to distrust, and for good reasons.
The fear of detection argument holds no sway with me. If you're flying like an idiot, you deserve to be held accountable. The privacy argument doesn't move me either. We're monitored on radar most of our flying lives and are required to transmit a squawk code most of the time when we're in controlled airspace. At least to a point, the FAA has a compelling interest in using surveillance technology to safeguard the airspace.
That last objection — fear of the FAA — is clearly the hardest to dismiss. I've seen enough abuse of power on the part of the FAA to last me a lifetime. That fear would be the deal breaker for me.
If the National Transportation Safety Board or NASA were to be charged with mining and administering the data, that would a different story. Those folks seem to understand the sensitive nature of the convergence of safety and privacy and they tread lightly upon it.
If data monitoring is to ever take off in light airplanes — and I hope that it does some day — it will take a light touch indeed to make it work and make it work solely for good.