Fully automated flights are getting closer to becoming a reality. A report recently released by investment bank UBS stated, “Technically speaking, remotely controlled planes carrying passengers and cargo could appear” by around 2025. The report said, “The technologies in development today will enable the aircraft to assist and back up the pilot in all the flight phases, removing the pilot from manual control and systems operations in all types of situations.”
There could be enormous cost savings for airlines, and perhaps consumers. The shift has the potential to result in less spending on training, salaries and other staffing costs. The report estimates that a switch to full automation could save the air-transportation industry $35 billion a year and reduce passenger fares by around 10 percent.
Commercial airline pilots are increasingly hard to find around the world because many are retiring while airlines are adding flights. Airlines in China and the Middle East are paying hefty bonuses to hire pilots for their fast growing airline industries. The current rules for much of the world require at least two people in the cockpit at all times. Airlines typically employ 10 pilots per aircraft.
Many functions of flight are already automated. Modern planes are outfitted with sensors that relieve pilots from entering data into flight systems. Autopilot systems allow planes to cruise on their own and they even land themselves. Pilots manually fly the aircraft for only a few minutes on average, but they are continually monitoring and adjusting aircraft navigation and systems, communicating with air traffic control, and preparing for the next phase of the flight.
Passengers and regulators would have to become comfortable with the idea of nobody sitting in the cockpit. Many airline passengers say that they aren’t ready to give up human pilots. Only 17 percent of the people UBS surveyed said they would be likely to take a pilotless flight. Half of the respondents said that they would not buy the pilotless flight ticket even if it was cheaper. The survey polled 8,000 people in the U.S., Europe and Australia.
UBS says fully automated aircraft would be likely to start with cargo planes and air taxis. Fully automated commercial flights would likely come much later. There are also questions about security of the plane when the plane could be controlled remotely. Boeing has announced plans to test flights next year that will rely on artificial intelligence to carry out some tasks handled by pilots. However, pilots will still be needed in the aircraft to make decisions that autopilot systems may not be able to do, like handling heavy turbulence.