Many studies have been carried out in recent years about the pros and cons of pilotless aircraft in commercial aviation. This subject has become somewhat of a controversial discussion in the aviation industry. Is the technology ready? Would it be safe? Could it become safer than conventional piloted aircraft? Would passengers fear travelling in these planes? What if something wrong happens, would the computers be able to “save” lives in the same way certain human pilots have done in the history of aviation? Let’s answer some of these questions.
First of all, what are the advantages? The most important advantage is pilot-related cost savings, which include salary, training and social benefits. Remember that airliners need much more than simply two pilots per aircraft for efficient operations, so here we’re talking about savings of billions of dollars globally. Try to imagine how this cost saving could influence ticket prices. Also, planning for 24/7 flight schedules and pilot duty time can be a nightmare for airliners, so pilotless aircraft would reduce the complexity of flight planning and increase aircraft utilization rates. Some experts say that flights would become much safer, but we will discuss this later. Other less significant advantages are the resulting aircraft space optimization and weight saving from removing the cockpit and the pilot’s interfaces in the aircraft.
Now, is it doable? That’s the easiest question to answer. Yes, of course, and the technology already exists. Just think about the advanced fly-by-wire systems installed in the latest aircraft. FBW systems already control everything for the entire flight and respond to some emergencies independently. There are also Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), which are almost completely autonomous. If you’re still skeptical, think about military drones that are much more advanced and that already fly “by themselves.” However, this technology will have to be certified for civil aviation, which is a long process, and traffic control would have to be adjusted, yet this is not a technology issue.
The most controversial question on this subject is, would it be safe? Of course, we just need to develop it to make it safe and to ensure adequate redundancy. The real question here is actually, would it be safer? For decades, work has been carried into human factors and their influence on safety within aviation. Studies have shown that 70–80% of aviation incidents and accidents are caused by human error. Of course, pilots are not the only ones to blame for these incidents. Many are caused by manufacturing, maintenance or traffic control errors, to name just a few. Since pilots play a major role in flying, they also contribute to a significant proportion of this statistic. Therefore, removing humans from the flying portion of aviation could be a good way to improve safety. Fewer humans = less error, right? Even if it is counter-intuitive to believe that, it is actually true, and it has been proven through the last few decades of aviation history.
Now, what if everything goes wrong? What if all the computers and the backups fail? Can a computer be a hero and save hundreds of lives like some human pilots have done in the past? Can a computer fly simply by “feeling” the aircraft? Can it make a decision between attempting a water landing on the Hudson River or potentially crashing into a populated area? Or between avoiding a school or residential area and heading for a highway? That’s the real question!
Some organizations, including NASA, are working on a solution for this. One of the options would be to have a single pilot cockpit in case of emergency. The role of this pilot would be to monitor the aircraft, but not actually fly it. Another solution could be to have pilots on the ground that could remotely take control of the aircraft in the event of an emergency. These “super dispatchers” could be tasked with monitoring as many as 12 aircraft and make important decisions if needed. The in-charge flight attendant could also be trained to fly the aircraft if necessary, which would provide human backup aboard the aircraft. A combination of super dispatchers and in-charge flight attendants would likely be the best solution. It would provide for experienced assistance on the ground and a last chance human hero presence on board.
The final question is, would the public be comfortable enough to travel on pilotless flights? Would you put your life into a computer’s “hands” when you are used to encountering bugs and glitches daily on your personal computer and electronic devices? Clearly, this technology would have to prove its effectiveness and safety first. Yet, this is not really an issue, because the aviation industry could start slowly by first introducing it on cargo airplanes and then in business aviation. Then, reduced ticket prices would do the rest. Imagine what a 20–25% price discount could do? We are not saying that public opinion would change in overnight, but consumer trends generally follow the money…
Evolution has tended be a source of fear for humans in the past, and that can certainly be said for the evolution of aviation where loss of control can easily and quickly become a disaster. However, when a change brings so many advantages, there is no doubt that it will be introduced at some point in the future.