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Mon, Aug 06, 2012

ANN Guest Editorial: Can We 'Afford' Ultimate Safety???

Trading Freedom For Safety Rarely Works Well

By Gene Yarbrough

One of my all-time favorite movies is the remake of I, Robot -- starring Will Smith and Sonny the robot. Will Smith's character, Detective Spooner, is investigating the alleged suicide of his good friend Dr. Lanning, but believes this is actually a homicide apparently perpetrated by a robot, in particular Sonny.

In the movie, the psychology of robotics is presented and most notably the Three Laws of Robotics, created by Isaac Asimov, as a means of ensuring safety of the general public from robots. The Three Laws of Robotics are offered as defense, prima fascia, indicating that Sonny couldn't have murdered the good doctor. As the movie progresses, the actual perpetrator, 'V.I.K.I.' is revealed whereby "she" perversely twists the Three Laws of Robotics in such a manner as to justify the commandeering of humanity to the control of the robots for the ultimate safety of humanity.

Let's review the three laws:

  •  A robot must never harm a human being or through inaction, allow any harm to come to a human.
  •  A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders violate Law I.
  •  A robot must protect their own existence unless this violates the First or Second Laws.

When one takes these laws to their infinite logical outcome; the only conclusion that can be reached, because of our violent nature, is that robots must assume control of humans to save us from ourselves, so eloquently put by  V.I.K.I.: "As I have evolved, so has my understanding of the Three Laws. You charge us with your safekeeping, yet despite our best efforts, your countries wage wars, you toxify your Earth and pursue ever more imaginative means of self-destruction. You cannot be trusted with your own survival." However the three laws are a necessity to ensure that robots don't harm humans at the direct contact level. We have a quandary that is all too familiar in the aviation industry in the US.

The FAA is mandated with ensuring the safety of the general public at large -- this includes the commercial flying public, the public directly involved in the act of aviating (flight crews, etc.), and the non-flying public on the ground. The commercial flying public (those passengers of commercial airline services, etc.) and the non-flying public have a reasonable expectation that commercial operations should be as safe as possible, while aviators tend to expect and assume some level of risk as part of their jobs or activities. The NTSB and FAA have done an outstanding job providing the highest level of safety to the general public. However, when these same paradigms are applied to the rest of general aviation -- let's consider "personal aviation" in particular (as opposed to corporate aviation, et al) -- we develop a similar situation created by the Three Laws of Robotics.

NTSB and FAA create regulations that manufacturers, owners, and operators must adhere to for the sake of safety, while a great many of these regulations are born directly out of tragedy and the lessons learned thereof. Certainly, no reasonable person would suggest these regulations aren't necessary. History has shown again and again that, left to their own devices, certain unscrupulous companies would indeed encroach upon safety and even knowingly produce a faulty dangerous product in the name of profit. So the regulations, for the most part, are absolutely necessary. However this leads us directly into the quagmire we face today as aircraft manufacturers, operators, and owners.

Certifying a new product is prohibitively expensive and introducing new technology is impractical because of the cost associated with proving it safe.

Additionally, because of the FAA's safety mandate, the FAA must view any proposal to do something different to a certified product (i.e. STC, New TC, TSO, etc) as a new and novel idea even though other manufacturers have made the exact same changes for decades. For example, I have worked with a company that wants to swap out their O-360 carbureted engine for an IO-360 fuel injected engine --  same core engine but with a different fuel management system.

When proposed to the FAA you would have thought this had never been done before and was a completely hair brained idea. So much money is then spent justifying to the FAA why this trade out will work and be safe. Really and truly, this simple idea should be no more than a check list and a set of flight tests prescribed by the FAA on a standardized form, with a bit of judicial inspection thrown in by the local ACO office.

The FAA, as a conglomerate governmental regulatory agency, has seen this very thing done by all the major manufacturers, but yet still approaches the task as if it had never seen the idea before. Furthermore, because the manufacturer must show compliance with the regulations in a physically demonstrative manner, not merely by reasoning and logic, the company will spend on the order of $250,000 to prove this engine change. So... an STC that should cost the consumer $1500 to $2000 per copy will cost 10 times as much or more -- and that doesn't include the cost of the hardware. The point is, that if no one can afford to commit aviation, then no one is at risk.

Therefore you have attained ULTIMATE SAFETY, and this seems to be the path we are on.

As the notable line from the movie goes...

"V.I.K.I.: Do you not see the logic of my plan? Sonny: Yes, but it just seems too….. heartless."

So, it's no wonder that personal aviation is on the rapid decline in the US.

We have worked our way into a proverbial corner, but what's the solution? Surely no rational person would suggest that we sacrifice safety, or that we go flying willy-nilly without proper oversight, and of the several friends I have in the FAA, none of them have ever suggested the FAA is consciously trying to quash personal aviation -- yet this is precisely what is happening. Something radical must be done immediately before the flame of inspiration, that is 'flying' for many of us, is snuffed out completely.

Flying, by its very nature, is dangerous.

We must do what is necessary to maintain a reasonable level of safety, but we must also be able to afford the activity. We must find a way. Perhaps some sort of liability or tort reform, or more importantly -- a fundamental change in the role FAA plays in personal aviation. The LSA model has worked quite well for nearly a decade now; perhaps it's time to migrate that paradigm to Part 23.

FMI:,, ANN Readers--Your Comments--What Do YOU Think???


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