Automation of The Aviation Industry: Are Robots Taking Over The Aviation Industry?

by Amber Drumm, Dionicio Espino, Jada Hackett, Zachary Holloway, Sarah Huddell, Alejandra Hurtado and Donovan Huynh

Brief overview of how robots have taken over in the aviation industry:

Since the introduction of robotics, machines have slowly become the best alternative for more efficient production. Robots reduce production costs and do not require health care benefits as a manual worker would need. Although they offer various benefits, robots adversely affect the manual workers of the industries. As many industries incorporate more robots into the manufacturing of their products and the distribution of their services, these companies require less manual labor and, as a result, greatly increase the nation’s unemployment rate. Particularly in the aviation industry, robots are slowly replacing many important roles in providing safe air travel. For instance, Boeing, one of the world’s biggest airplane manufacturers, modified its 737 and 777 models with new technological functions that operate without the supervision of a pilot (roboticsbusinessreview.com).  As the robots complete multiple tasks more efficiently, companies in the aviation industry employ fewer workers. Due to the introduction of new technological advances in the aviation industry, more people lose their jobs to cost-efficient robots.

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What Jobs are Being Displaced and How?

Robots are being used in a wide variety of jobs in the aviation industry, from the production, maintenance, and operation sectors. Much of the aircraft construction process is automated now, causing many human airplane manufacturing workers to have to seek work elsewhere. Because they are cost-efficient and have a greater degree of accuracy than humans, robots are the ideal choice for “drilling, fastening, sealing, painting, and composite part production” (robotics.org). Robots have also eliminated the need for several operators on the flight deck. During the mid 20th century, the main flight crew included “two pilots, a flight engineer, a radio operator, and a navigator” (flyertalk.com). Now, for most commercial flights, the flight crew consists of only a single pilot and a first officer. With advancements in autopilot technology, this number could conceivably drop to a single pilot, which would save nearly $15 billion USD for airlines (flyertalk.com).

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What Kind of Robots Are Being Used?

Boeing, one of the leading manufacturers of commercial aircraft, has been using robots for several years, beginning with automated painting machines for aircraft bodies. Robots are also used for dangerous manufacturing tasks such as drilling and fastening along an airplane’s fuselage. Because robots can work at any angle and will not suffer from injuries related to repetitive motion, they are a much more efficient labor option than human workers (robotics.org). Beginning in 2017, Boeing unveiled it was developing a fully automated flight system that could take off, land, and cruise without the need for a pilot. European aircraft manufacturer Airbus revealed similar plans with its prototype Vahana planes that can fly fully automated for 50 miles (wingmag.com). Within the next decade, advancements in automation are expected to result in aircraft that operate under nearly total automation. Provided the human pilots on board are trained properly in the operation of all flight systems on the aircraft, this will lead to a much safer flight experience overall due to the precision and efficiency of these automated systems (New York Times).

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Can Robots Be Harmful to Aviation?

The first thing to consider is the financial impact innovation and automation has made in the aviation industry. Looking at the financial records of the U.S.’s shining star (with regard to exports and impact on GDP) Boeing company reported 15.2 billion dollars worth of “Equipment and Machinery” (SEC.gov). These assets have been accumulated over the years, and certainly, a large percentage of this consists of robots and automated machinery/software which has replaced human labor over the years. 15.2 Billion dollars reported for equipment and machinery on the balance sheet pales in comparison to the 101.1 Billion dollars worth of revenue they reported just last year (SEC.gov). The reason behind Boeing’s success in recent years is accredited to the “leaning” of their operational and manufacturing expenses. By adopting Japanese lean manufacturing techniques, which focus on eliminating waste (wasted time, transport, manufacturing defects, etc.), Boeing has cut back on expenses and increased its net operating income. But this also means that jobs have been replaced with more efficient robotics.

 

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What Does This Mean For Human Employment of This Company?

In short, the amount spent on robotic equipment and automation-based software is dwarfed in comparison to the returns yielded and “waste” eliminated. It’s almost like a domino effect. With the implementation of robots, they’re not only producing more aircraft, but they cut labor costs, cutting employee-based taxes (FICA), cutting fringe benefits (robots won’t ask for a matching 401K!) receiving a greater manufacturing tax benefit (SEC.gov), and the list goes on and on. And this doesn’t even scratch the surface of how automated software has replaced many administrative jobs within the company. Marketing, accounting, scheduling, and alert systems have replaced a host of jobs as well. Boeing may have 15 Billion dollars with robots and machines on their books, but the number has grown every year (SEC.gov). There is no clear sign that this trend will stop, with every dollar spent on robotic substitutes, they’ve consistently gained more in revenues. And this looks favorable to investors too. They don’t see what Boeing is doing to cut all these expenses, they just see “debt to equity ratios”, “acid test ratios”, etc. which all are becoming more appealing as they continue to cut costs and generate revenues.

To put this in perspective, let’s look at the difference between the man-power once used to build one of these 737s versus the man-power required now. “Boeing made 564 planes a year, about 217 workers per plane. This year it aims to make 760 planes, using about 109 workers per plane, and the figure is falling” (Scott).

Boeing, one of the leading international aircraft manufacturers is making more planes with fewer people. With the implementation of automation and robotics Boeing essentially cut labor costs in half and increased sales due to the efficiency of their production. However, this automation has put percent of its labor manufacturing employees out of a job. Not only has their manufacturing jobs suffered, their entire workforce is working with two-thirds the manpower it used to due to automation and robotics (sastrarobotic.com).

 

Recently, Boeing Has Had Some Controversial News

Most recently, at the end of October, there were 52 confirmed Boeing 737s grounded internationally due to signs of cracking within the infrastructure of the plane. Many speculate that this could be the result of over-reliance on the integrity of the manufacturing process which is highly dependent on robotics and automation. Others speculate, just the opposite. That the use of automation has streamlined and improved the manufacturing process. (cbsnews.com)

 

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Of course, then there’s Boeing’s goal of having the entire piloting process automated. That’s right, imagine flying as a passenger in a plane with Artificial Intelligence (AI) from iRobot flying the aircraft? In all seriousness, in response to the crashes of two 737 Max aircraft CEO Dennis Muilenburg addressed safety priorities and standards in the field after the fatal crashes which killed 189 people in October in Lion Air Flight 610, then 157 people in Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. (nytimes.com) Then, in the following month of this year, Muilenburg discussed the focus of safety in the pursuit of autonomous commercial flight. (chicagotribune.com) This beckons the question of, is this the solution, or just another potential point of failure?

 

Mechanical Error vs Human Error

  1. Human error and mechanical error are two factors that should be seriously considered and compared in the aviation industry. Both factors are possibilities that should entice workers within this industry to make a choice and stick to it.
  2. Human error is a huge factor in a lot of aircraft accidents. The error of the pilots comes from a lapse in the procedure of flight operations and this form of error is unintentional. No person is free of human error, and that is why robots have become an alternative to such a potentially scary situation. Pilots must have a strong level of communication with other members of the crew in order to avoid any type of errors. They also need to monitor fuel and switch to a new fuel tank before takeoff. Are there robots programmed well enough to do this?
  3. An increase in automation could lead to an increase in the probability of a system malfunction (in other words “mechanical error”). There would be a heavy use of automation in systems such as navigation systems, communication, air traffic, security, etc. The operation of numerous control systems would be the most efficient way to operate a plane, but the chance of a machine could make a passenger uneasy.

 

What Are the Long Term Ramifications of the Robot Displacement of Humans?

There will come a time when air travel may not require the use of on-plane staff because every position can be covered by a robot. This means that the use of robots in aviation will reduce the value of a pilot’s license, as well as eliminating human jobs such as Stewards/Stewardess’ and commercial pilots. Also, robots will affect the U.S. Airforce by eliminating the manual human labor in fighter jets and military cargo planes. The manufacture of airplanes will also change as technology develops to create completely machine run factories. Not only that, but the maintenance of the plane can also be completely controlled by robots. Finally, the need for human security in airports may be more limited in the future as robotic airport security technology becomes more advanced.

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In Conclusion

The numbers are staggering. Whether you see the implementation of software automation and robots as a blessing or a burden, there is no denying the large number of jobs that have been affected. From manufacturing, maintenance, administrative, engineering jobs, etc, this industry has been overrun by automation and robotics. The level of structural unemployment (unemployment due to changing demand/technological-advancement in an industry, rendering a job obsolete) is at an all-time high. This raises larger questions, how are we adapting to a continuously changing society? How can lower class citizens and laborers catch up to the increasing technical demand? Is this much automation and robotics good for society? Whatever stance you take, a universal consensus should be that we need feasible solutions to keep people employed in this dynamic industry. Big business shows no signs of stopping their automation-train, it’s too profitable, so we must adapt as a labor force.

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Many agree that building aircraft carriers is a complex operation that still requires a manual touch. However, robots are making some jobs like public relations, and maintenance easier and less stressful for some people. Robots are poised to become a major trend in the industry. This frees humans, “from everyday mundane activities, leaving humans to deal with more complex customer service-oriented tasks and emergencies.” (Ameria). Many can count on robots to start showing up at airports more often.  This has displaced many employees, however, on the flip side, the automation of the industry will allow for fewer aircraft accidents, acclimating less waste, and allowing people to do less “manual labor” (painting, screwing, assembly). Robots have caused the issue of devaluing the value of a pilot’s license and creating the issue of safety. For the aviation industry, the end game is to deliver safety, maintain exceptional customer experience, and reduce overall costs (Ameria).

In the aviation industry, the goal is to automate the entire piloting process. One of the leading manufacturers of commercial aircraft, Boeing, has been successfully using robots for several years. With the use of robots companies hope to have fewer aircraft accidents, acclimating less waste, and allowing people to do less “manual labor” (painting, screwing, assembly). The goal is to figure out an even ground between who does what. Can robots create a safer flying experience? Will robots completely take over the aviation industry? Time will tell.  As of now, major airline companies who have integrated robots into their companies are creating great strides. Where will we be in a few years? It will be very fascinating to see! “To see where we’re going, to see what the industry has in store for us” (Anandan) is incredibly exciting!

 

 

Works Cited

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