Automation and liability in ATC: our article for “ATC Magazine”

The ATC is experiencing a period of profound and rapid transformation due to the large introduction of automation. The global stop due to the pandemic diffusion of COVID-19, requiring us to rethink the overall system in the perspective of gradually resuming the service, might further foster the process.

In this process towards highly automatized scenario, the ATC is currently discussing the role that the human operators will play in this scenario. Will the ATCOs act as mere supervisors? Will the system require ATCOs to make one-off interventions? In which conditions? How to design this new ATCO’s role in order to make it effective and at the same time acceptable? These are just some of the first questions that arise when we address the topic.

We can of course consider the extreme scenario in which ATC is completely automatized and there is no more need for the ATCOs as we know them today. But, it seems quite unrealistic.  Better, and definitely more challenging, is to envisage future scenarios in which the human operators work in close cooperation with a new generation of supportive systems based on high levels of automation. In this envisaged scenarios, the classical dualism between human and machine seems to be about to become obsolete. Probably, a new concept of integrated human-system agency based on human-machine cooperation and co-management of tasks will replace it. A system in which different levels of automation may also co-exist, and intervene depending on the circumstances.

In this new scenario, many questions arise regarding how to design such new technologies and the associated tasks and responsibilities allocation in order to ensure safety, operability and reliability of the overall system. Among the contributing factors to take into account, there is also legal liability in case of an accident. Paola Lanzi, our Human Factors Specialist, dedicated an article to the relation between automation and liability in ATC. Moving from the analysis of the accident of the Uber autonomous car occurred in Arizona, it focuses on the emerging liability issues of automation, to then present a new proactive approach to liability allocation and automation design for safety-critical domains, in particular the ATC. You can read the article, in English and Spanish, on ATC Magazine.

Vera Ferraiuolo

Senior Dissemination Consultant