Over the past decade, the aviation industry has been going through some major changes. The market is becoming more competitive and improving the user experience has become more important than ever. These market pressures are happening in an environment where technology used by airlines keeps improving, and global policies have been changing. Among all those changes, perhaps the most notable is tied to one common denominator – artificial intelligence. AI technology is all around us with many industries leveraging its potential to varying degrees. While it’s obvious that it’s not a “magic wand” business solution, it’s definitely proven to be useful in specific use cases.
Aviation is a great example of a field that’s seeing a lot of transformation with the introduction of modern AI solutions. Judging by the way current trends are moving, we’re likely going to see even more in the coming years. So how is AI transforming the aviation industry?
Route plotting is already done by machines to a large extent, but it turns out that applying some advanced AI technologies to the process can produce some interesting results. It’s not so much about the route of one individual plane, but rather the interrelationship of all planes taking off and landing at a given time. AI algorithms can make advanced calculations that take all those flights into account, producing much more effective routes that take a large number of factors into consideration.
This is something that will probably take a long time to institutionalize. Route plotting is a complex field that requires coordination between multiple different institutions – often on an international level. There is a lot of bureaucracy to overcome before we can start properly deploying AI systems.
Artificial intelligence is also extending to the navigation systems used in modern planes. A large part of the “heavy lifting” in flying operations is now done by AI, with little interaction needed from pilots. Taking off and landing are still complex processes that require the attention of pilots, but it does seem like things are going to change in this regard. It’s not far-fetched to imagine a near future where all flights are handled by artificial intelligence with human operators performing supporting tasks to ensure that everything goes smoothly.
That’s not to say that the job of a pilot is on its way out. Quite on the contrary, we’re likely going to see a spike in the demand for competent specialists who can oversee more challenging trips. At the same time, those pilots will prove invaluable in training AI to operate properly. It’s going to take many years until we see algorithms performing flawlessly, so there is quite a lot of work ahead of us in this regard.
Security remains a major concern in aviation, and as it turns out, artificial intelligence can play a huge role in this area. Passenger screening already relies on automated systems for many of its tasks, but there’s still room for improvement. Keeping people moving through airports quickly and efficiently is paramount to ensuring a good customer experience. AI is helping to support the work of human screeners and both provide an added level of security as well as help improve and speed up the screening process. Large numbers of faces can be scanned simultaneously by computer vision systems without requiring additional interactions from passengers. This information can then be passed on to security who can respond in a timely manner if they spot someone who may be on a watch list or appears suspicious.
There have been some concerns about the privacy issues associated with using AI and facial recognition, but many of the most sensitive issues have already been identified, and are being addressed. The goal is that AI will actually make the entire process less intrusive and give people more freedom to travel without having to think about security concerns.
Another use case of AI in aviation is baggage monitoring and screening. This function is important to keeping airports and flights secure, and a lot of resources are constantly invested in improving this area of operations. There are many challenges to streamlining these operations. Suitcases are not always easy to open, and sometimes there are privacy concerns with doing so. At the same time, human operators screening baggage for prolonged periods of time can be prone to error and may miss important cues of unsafe items.
AI can perform this task faster and more efficiently with a lower rate of errors. It functions by helping assist human screeners. Using AI automated systems, a ground level screening of all baggage can occur, and suspicious or questionable bags can be flagged and alerts can be sent to human screeners for additional evaluation checks. Assisting human screeners with their workload will likely result in significant improvements in the level of accuracy of security measures.
Airlines have been taking advantage of recent developments in the field of AI to improve their interaction with customers, and there is no shortage of opportunities to do this. Addressing customer complaints and questions in a timely fashion is paramount to the success and reputation of airlines. Customers have high expectations for levels of service, and companies are utilizing AI and natural language processing to power their chatbots to focus on addressing this.
One of the things AI systems excel at is gathering large volumes of data and sorting through it for easy access and analysis. Not only is AI being used to power chatbot conversations, but also to analyze all kinds of communications for valuable customer insights including emails, social media posts, user reviews etc.
Aircraft maintenance is a complex and expensive field. There’s no room for error, the smallest oversight can be catastrophic. There are often redundant processes and cross-checking work between service specialists. AI can be deployed to monitor an aircraft’s status and performance. This includes the periods when the plane is on the ground, as well as during flights. In fact, AI can contribute a lot in the second case in particular. Certain mechanical issues are not easy to spot on the ground and only become apparent while the plane is in flight. They usually take some time to manifest fully, meaning that a plane could go on several flights with an issue developing in its structure, and without anyone realizing. Ground inspections aren’t guaranteed to always catch those problems.
That’s where AI comes in. It can effectively keep the plane in check even during its operation, all through sensors that don’t require any human interaction. This is an area of active investigation for many specialists in the AI field, and we’re likely going to see some solid solutions there in the near future.
Security goes beyond just passenger and baggage screening. Verifying employee identity to ensure personnel are in approved and designated areas is very important not only for security reasons, but also for safety factors. Using computer vision and facial recognition, it’s becoming easier to identify authorized personnel and grant them access to specific locations. Through a combination of computer vision and advanced analytics found in smart cameras, the overall security level has significantly improved in the last 10 years. Some airlines have already engaged in partnerships for exchange of data and other analytical results, and this will likely lead to an increase in the overall security around the world.
With people coming out of the COVID pandemic, travel is on the rise and certainly sure to continue to boom. AI is helping airlines to improve operational efficiencies, provide secure environments and improve customer experiences. These changes are seen as being critical to long term success and are helping innovative airlines gain an edge in a competitive market. Computer vision, natural language processing and AI are likely to lead to major transformations down the road, and change the face of aviation forever.