Accidents, humans and machines: who pays the bill?

The relationship between front-end users and engineers is not always an easy one. Engineers believe that it is the human operator that hampers the good operation of their machines. Front-end users argue that their job is to regularly do what the machine cannot do or redress bugs of machines which are poorly designed and which do not offer a proper interface to be used by human operators. With increasing automation this relationship will not become any easier. The next generation of air traffic management systems and the fast-growing Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) industry are a case in point. These technologies open a number of questions in the legal field, notably the issue of liability in case of an accident.

ALIAS NetworkLast week, legal and aviation industry professionals met in Florence to discuss the multifaceted aspects of automation and liability. The Conference, organised by the ALIAS network, looked at issues of costs, complexity, contracts and clauses of all types, human factors and integration of hardware, software and last but not least - the human. As regards national laws related to liability issues used by courts they date from many centuries ago and do not integrate properly the complexity of specific situations. For example, these laws can certainly not cover accidents with RPAS.

Integrating RPAS into European airspace is challenging with many open questions concerning the liability in case of accidents during their operation: Who is responsible if the link between the remote-controlled aircraft and the operating station is lost? Who is responsible if the ‘remote’ pilot operating the aircraft is not properly trained? Who is responsible in case the software fails? Is an RPAS that has flight phases in which it flies autonomously still ‘remotely piloted’? How should such a system be insured?

Many stakeholders consider that the discussion is irrelevant because RPAS should operate under the legal environment of manned aircraft. It is commonly admitted that, according to ICAO, RPAS operators will be subject to strict liability rules, which imply that the company operator will pay for the damages even if there is no negligence or wilful misconduct on its side. All other stakeholders – operator, owner, pilot, insurance, etc. – would only be responsible in case of negligence or wilful misconduct. This could be seen as disproportionate given the fact that the operator relies on many automated systems (s)he does not/cannot control, up to the level of complete autonomy of such a vehicle. 

The uncertainty surrounding these technologies are pressing but so far they have left regulators struggling to find solutions. Stakeholders will continue to seek ways to untangle the complex automation-liability relationship. Especially pilots have to provide guidance in this discussion, highlight the levels of automation and the significant difference between RPAS and a manned aircraft: partial autonomy. The ALIAS network has made a successful first attempt to address some of the questions before new technologies are fully implemented, and, ultimately, before the first major accident has occurred.

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