Airlines Mull Real-Time Monitoring of Pilot Conversations

Stephen Pope
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AI technology in the cockpit could alert airline personnel to inflight emergencies as they unfold.

Many of us are convinced that our smartphones and other connected devices listen to our every word and can serve us ads based on the keywords we utter. Now, a similar eavesdropping concept could be coming to the flight deck as airlines look at artificial intelligence-enabled technologies that can listen to pilot conversations, store the data for analysis and report “high-stress” events in real time to alert airline personnel on the ground to an unfolding emergency even if the pilots do not communicate with them.

One company developing such flight deck tools is NIIT Technologies, an India-based IT services company with offices in Princeton, New Jersey. The company with 10,000 employees globally has about 100 airline customers, including many major airlines in the United States.

Madan Mohan, global head of travel and transportation for NIIT Technologies, explained that the technologies the company has created can be used by airlines for a host of purposes, from leveraging AI to predict whether a crew will be delayed on their way to an airport when reporting for duty, to determining if a particular pilot is the right "fit" for the job, to monitoring pilot conversations and improving safety through flight operation quality assurance (FOQA) and real-time monitoring.

“Using our data technology, we can acquire the voice of the pilot while they are flying and use AI to differentiate between what is normal and expected conversation or determine if there is increased stress in the pilot’s voice,” Mohan said.

Airlines, he said, are already testing the concept. The eventual goal is to monitor, store and perhaps relay in real time cockpit conversations, with AI algorithms used to sort the massive amount of data and pick out conversations that are problematic. That could include non-flying-related conversations pilots may be having in violation of sterile cockpit guidelines, Mohan said.

“Pilots may need to be more mindful of the conversations they are having,” he said of the potential for such technology to land a flight crew in hot water with their employer.

Pilot unions undoubtedly will have major issues with the seeming invasion to privacy that such technologies present, and aviation regulators will have to grapple with the idea of inviting Big Brother into the cockpit.But the safety-related data gleaned from being able to monitor and analyze cockpit communications could trump privacy concerns, Mohan predicted, as AI technology gives airlines insight into what is happening on the flight deck.

NIIT Technologies said cockpit voice-monitoring tools could be become prevalent in the next few years.
 

NIIT Technologies said cockpit voice-monitoring tools could be become prevalent in the next few years.