pilotless aircraft

Pilotless Aircraft are coming to the Airlines, aren’t they?

We will have pilotless aircraft in our sky’s!

Computers will replace the Commercial Pilot!

These are the headlines I have read across all media and aviation communities in recent times.  The general consensus is that the technology is capable, computers will replace the commercial pilot but there will be an almighty fight required to get passengers to fly on them.

Reading beyond the headlines I am often left wondering what the article is trying to say. On the one hand pilotless aircraft can happen, then on the other there is an almost cynical view that you will never get passengers to step on one. The purpose of my post is to consider the “whys” and “why nots”, predict if/when pilotless planes will land at an airport near you

Let’s start by predicting when the following conversation about a commercial pilot will take place?

“Pilots? What is a Commercial Pilot Grandpa?” A boy asks as he is taking his seat in a commercial passenger plane.

“A Commercial Pilot was a very skilled man or woman who was responsible for flying these big planes before computers took over”. The grandfather responds.

“There is no way I would get in a plane flown by a commercial pilot Grandpa, it would be way to dangerous.” replies the boy.

When will this conversation take place? Is it within the next decade, by 2050, never? Keep this question in the back of your mind as we consider the “whys” and “why nots” below.

Why Airliners of the Future will be Pilotless Aircraft

Pilots Make Mistakes

Planecrashinfo.com reports that there has been 1015 fatal accidents involving commercial planes carrying 18 or more passengers since 1950. Of these accidents 53% relate to pilot error (including errors related to weather and mechanical failure). Computers would not make these errors and their implementation could have a massive impact on safety for the airline industry.

I have provided two incidents from recent years to illustrate the benefit of a computer over a commercial pilot.

  • Virgin Australia (VH-VUZ) 737-800; An Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) report described an incident where a change in an Auto Pilot setting during initial climb by the pilots was forgotten. This error caused the plane to reach its minimum manoeuvre airspeed that was not corrected until a warning alerted the Captain.  The pilots commented that a number of distractions contributed to the incident including
    • sun glare
    • air traffic control chatter
    • cabin-related communication requirements
    • other air traffic in their vicinity
    • both pilots ate their breakfast during the climb (at separate times).

Would a computer be making these excuses?

  • In my earlier post “One Plane, Three Incidents“; incident number one described an aborted landing due to the pilots not lowering the landing gear in time for a safe landing. The investigation found that fatigue was an issue for one pilot while reading and answering texts on his smart phone distracted the other.

Any of us could have been on this plane. A computer does not get fatigued or need to check its smart phone!

Commercial Reality

Airlines will need to differentiate themselves from competitors in the future as prices go as low as they can by normal means. The allure of being the first airline to start pilotless aircraft commercial air services will grow exponentially as time passes. A commercial pilotless aircraft in service, if it works, provides significant competitive advantages to the first airline to start. The advantages will include:

  • They will be a price leader; we already know passengers vote with their wallets due to low-cost airlines growth around the world.
  • They will be the safety leader; remember 53% of fatal accidents since 1950’s have been due to pilot error.
  • The marketing staff have a goldmine to take advantage off;
  • They will have a much improved industrial relations position. An alternative to those pilots.
  • They will increase aircraft utilisation as fatigue and pilot management become a problem of the past.

Planes Can Already Fly by Themselves

The leap from todays auto pilot to tomorrows pilotless plane in terms of technology is not that great. Consider these facts:

  • 1912 the Sperry Corporation conducted the first demonstration of an autopilot system;
  • 1947 an US Air Force C-54 flew across the Atlantic Ocean using only auto-pilot and this included take-off and landing;
  • In a recent CNN Money article Mary “Missy” Cummings, a former Air Force pilot, an engineering professor and Director of the Humans & Autonomy Lab at Duke University stated, “Pilots only spend 3 minutes per flight flying a plane anyway, and they don’t really need to do that”

Why, 68 years after a fully automated flight demonstration are we still utilising auto-pilot (albeit, new and improved) to help the commercial pilot and not replace them?

Eliminates the Impending Pilot Shortage

Depending on what you read and when – there is or is not a pilot shortage. The Wall Street Journal says the average age of a commercial pilot is 50 and climbing. New pilots are becoming scarce due to low initial wages and the costs associated with the new co-pilot certification laws implemented by congress .

An Ask the Pilot article believes the pilot shortage will critically impact the Regional Airlines only, as the large commercial airlines have so many pilots on furlow already. They will just bring them back.

With the airlines implementing pilotless aircraft the debate over pilot shortages will no longer exist. There will be plenty.

Planes Can Be Hijacked

A hijacked pilotless plane will offer little joy for the criminal. The computer will simply carry out the pre-programmed procedure. The hijacking of a commercial airliner will become a pointless exercise. Would recent examples like those below have happened with a pilotless aircraft?

  • Germanwings Flight 9525; this A320 was deliberately crashed by the co-pilot after he was able to lock the Captain out of the cockpit.
  • The 9/11 hijackings in the USA; The hijacking of four commercial planes. Two were flown into the World Trade Centre in New York, one was flown into the Pentagon in Washington DC and the other missed its target after crashing into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Why a Commercial Pilot will Always Fly a Commercial Airliner

Human Conditioning

For a passenger to be willingly to board a pilotless aircraft they will need to trust whatever is flying it. Passengers trust a highly trained commercial pilot through a 100+ years of conditioning. How often have we heard that air travel is the safest form of any travel?

It is a fact that pilots make errors. Our conditioning is strong however and any anxiety we may have about the statistics is far out weighed by the trust we place in the well-trained commercial pilot.

pilotless aircraft

Hollywood and their blockbuster movies have all contributed to the passengers conditioning. Whether we like to admit it or not movies do condition us.

We can become desensitized to violence and we can become skeptical about smart computers as they could turn on us at any moment. Off the top of my head I came up with the following Hollywood movies that have conditioned us to be skeptical of smart computers and placing our lives in their microchips:

  • The Terminator movies – the machines are fighting a war with humans;
  • The Matrix movies – the machines have taken over, using humans as batteries and our existence is a computer program not reality;
  • iRobot – where friendly and helpful service robots turn rogue and start attacking their owners;
  • 2001 A Space Odyssey  – The smart computer that pilots the spaceship and controls all the onboard systems turns rogue after suspecting his human passengers are planning to deactivate him due to a recent mistake.

How could we put our trust in computers after this!

Airlines will Pocket the Savings

Call me cynical, I probably am, but do you think the airlines will pass on all the savings or keep some or most for themselves?

We have seen it many times before. One example is the price of gas or petrol. When the world price goes up the local price goes up to match it. When the price comes down again the prices do fall but mysteriously not by the full amount. These oil giants and many other industries take advantage of us all the time.

Airlines will be no different. They will have a opportunity to cut prices however will they pass on all savings to their passengers? The pressure to keep some of this profit will be strong.

An airline will need to win the heart, sole and wallet of its passengers to succeed. Will the lure of higher profit margins be a major roadblock for a pilotless airline service?

Pilots can Adapt to any Situations

Will there be a time when a computer is programmed to respond to every possible scenario? How often do we hear – we do not even have that simulated! The passenger will always believe that the pilot can cope with any situation no matter what it is or how crazy it is. Will they ever feel the same way about a computer?

Computers are programmed to do anything not everything.

Would a computer be able to deal with these incidents:pilotless aircraft

  • An American Airlines A320 landed in the Hudson River in New York. It had lost both engines after flying through a flock of geese.
  • A QANTAS A380 made an emergency landing after one of its Rolls Royce Trent 900 engines had an uncontrolled failure. It exploded. The fragments caused significant damage to the fuselage and many of the systems housed behind its skin.

There is no Pilot Shortage

See “the emerging pilot shortage” above.

Hackers can take over the plane

A pilotless aircraft may deter would be Hijackers but it will spawn a new threat, the modern-day computer hacker.

If hacking well known corporations including Citibank, New York Times, NASA, Sony and Microsoft is possible why not a pilotless aircraft?

Finally, the Iranian’s have already hacked a pilotless plane.  The Daily Mail wrote in a 2013 article that “In 2011, Iranians took control of a remotely operated U.S. Predator spy plane. The Iranian government claimed its cyber warfare unit took over the controls and safely landed it.

If this is true, hacking a civilian airline would be childs play. I have concerns about this one. It is likely to stop me ever flying on a pilotless plane.

So……….. When will the Commercial Pilot become Extinct?

I have considered the points and will not let myself sit on the fence. My answer is:

“It will not happen in my lifetime”

As a non-pilot I need to base my opinion on what I read and listen to. With this in mind and considering the “whys” and “why nots” it became clear that the “why nots” presented the strongest case. I seem to prefer a free thinking human over a pre-programmed computer and I don’t trust those computer hackers.

Even the high percentage of pilot errors associated with fatal accidents is offset by more statistics. Planecrash.info quote the odds of being killed in a commercial airline flight are 1 in 4.7 million flight miles. If you only consider the top 39 commercial airlines, the ratio improves to 1 in 19.8 million flight miles. I think the pilots and the computers assisting them are a pretty good team and suspect that the commercial pilot will be in control of the plane for some time yet.

Finally……let’s assume for a minute that there will be commercial pilotless aircraft.

The question is, when? My answer above suggests the 2060’s at the earliest. However technology is advancing at an ever-increasing rate and it could be much sooner. You only need to consider how far we have come in our lifetimes to consider this possibility. Look at my life.

As a boy who grew up in the mid 1970’s, I had to go to the public library to get the information needed for school assignments, find a public phone booth to contact someone when out of the house, I had a stereo as big as any piece of furniture we owned and watched hazy black & white television (our first color TV was not much better). Now, 40 years later, a mobile phone is packed with these features. It easily fits in my pants pocket, taken with me everywhere and used at any time.

If you told me as a child that things would advance so quickly, I would have thought you were mad.

Here is a small challenge for you – I want you to find a 10-13 year old kid and tell them that pilotless commercial planes will rule the skies by the time they are an adult and the commercial pilot will be just a memory. It would be great to read what their reaction was to that question. It may even offer some insight of what the future holds for us.

Do you agree with my subjective view? What was the kids reaction?

This is a great opportunity to start a conversation and share with your friends. Leave a comment and lets talk.


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