Obviously this is an airplane and not a robot. But an airplane is a complex cyber-physical system, just like a robot is. Calling it a cyber-physical system simply means that it has computer controlled motors, pumps, valves and actuators to physically move something, and also that it has sensors to measure important aspects of its surroundings. A standard passenger plane has a complex cyber-physical system built in, with a tremendous amount of intelligence and automated features to help control the airplane. Everyone knows there is an autopilot in a plane – but the automated systems in an airplane go much further than just an autopilot : there is autoland for landing in foggy conditions, TOGA for take-off assistance, stick pusher/shaker systems for stall avoidance and more.
From an IT perspective, it doesn’t matter if cyber-physical system is a standard robot or a passenger jet, there is a tremendous amount of programming and infrastructure needed – both in and around the object. Many people focus on the 120 Million lines of code in the Airbus 380, but then they are ignoring the fact that autoland only works with the necessary ILS localizers installed at airports, autopilots rely on the GPS satellites for location information, and Air Traffic Control is monitoring the skies giving input.
The same will be true for Industry 4.0 for the use of robots and complex cyber-physical systems. The system itself is not just what is in the embedded software of the robot, but also the rest of the infrastructure (physical and IT) in the surroundings that are designed, deployed or programmed to support the robot.
It’s worth mentioning that automated airplane features are designed for planes that need pilots, and this is a special case of HRI – Human Robot Interaction. In most cases these features are not completely automatic: they require settings and adjustments, and their purpose is to free the pilot of the mundane operations to focus on the most important so that they can be notified when they are needed. The whole point of the stick shaker is to notify the pilot that action needs to be taken, and stick pushers have overrides. The movie Sully shows clearly that the judgement of an experienced pilot is irreplaceable. But in a review by the National Traffic Safety Board of an unfortunate accident Flight 3407, it suggested that overriding the stall avoidance system 3 times was an indication that the pilot was in error.
Robots in the right environment will also be able to expand their ability to cover dangerous tasks in even more complex situations. And people can focus on what they do best – which is reacting to unforeseen events, deviations from the plan, and tasks that a robot won’t be flexible or smart enough to do. Most won’t be as big or complex as their robot airplane cousins, but they are improving.
So next time you see an airplane in the sky, remember that it is an extremely safe cyber-physical flying robot designed for human interaction… and that it’s setting the pace for where robot technology is headed.
Stay tuned with my next post where I will address Industrial Robots.