How AI can — and cannot — help air traffic controllers


Why should artificial intelligence be used to help land planes? Air traffic controllers are plagued by fatigue and long hours. An investigation by The New York Times found they often come into work drunk and fall asleep on the job, pointing to a "workforce that is increasingly prone to making dangerous mistakes."

So the industry is seeking alternatives. But while AI may be a useful tool in some workplaces, there are debates over whether it belongs in the skies.

How is AI currently being used in air traffic control?
Artificial intelligence is not yet telling planes when to take off and land. However, some organizations have looked into how AI can be used to supplement data that air traffic controllers need to manage their runways.

Engineers at Arizona State University used AI to "create a novel air traffic management software platform, which will be adopted for domestic air travel in the upcoming decade," the university said. Companies are also working on predicting weather-related delays. received a "$19 million grant from the U.S. Air Force to launch more than 20 weather satellites," The New York Times said. Currently, pilots radio in encounters with bad weather to warn other planes, but satellites “could warn them earlier."

U.K. researchers at Project Bluebird have also produced a "computer model of air traffic control in which all flight movements are directed by artificial intelligence rather than human beings," the Financial Times said. 

Will AI ever replace human air traffic controllers?
Probably not. While Project Bluebird is making progress, researchers "emphasized that the AI system would have no authority to actually determine aircraft routing," Richard Cannon, the project leader, said to the Financial Times. 

AI has limitations and can perform "only those functions that are planned for during its design and so can't modify standard procedures," Amy Pritchett, an aerospace engineering professor at Penn State University, said in The Conversation. However, if even a small number of air traffic controller activities can be assigned to AI systems, it will benefit the industry.

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