The pilotless airliner is no longer unthinkable

The pilotless airliner is no longer unthinkable. It is just a matter of time before airliners have one pilot, and soon after that they will have none.

The first one-pilot commercial air transport aircraft will be freighters, and that sector will almost certainly blaze the trail to the pilotless passenger aircraft. That will be a cockpitless airliner in which first class passengers will occupy the window seats at the sharp end.

The aircraft might have a pilot standing by for emergencies, but s/he will be back at base.

What are the indicators?

Airliners are already highly automated, and pilots are increasingly being told not to interfere with the automation. Meanwhile it is already accepted – or even status quo – that unmanned autonomous or remotely piloted air vehicles will take over many of the military and general aviation tasks now performed by aircraft with a cockpit.

Although serious airline accidents are now more rare than they have ever been, that is the result of improvements in aircraft and systems design, not of a Darwinian improvement in pilot skills.

In fact the effect on pilot mental skills of the high levels of automation is a serious worry to the industry.

Accidents resulting from pilot inability to cope when the automation or guidance fails – or when it is simply not available – are becoming the new killers. The common serious accidents now are loss of control  or controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) resulting from pilot failure to monitor, believe or understand what is going on. You will find a brief description of this concern and the potential consequences in a blog entry I wrote a few weeks ago.

The main barrier to pilotless commercial aircraft operation is the primitive air traffic control system we have at present. Although controllers are provided with predictive as well as actual traffic information now, the system is completely human-driven. From about 2020 this will begin to change, and by 2030 controllers will not control traffic, they will be available in case something anomalous happens. That’s like the airline pilot’s job has been for some time, but air traffic management is about 30 years behind onboard systems.

When Europe’s SESAR and the USA’s NextGen ATM systems have been fully up and running for a few years, aeroplanes will carry out their own trajectory management and their own traffic separation. The rest of the world is preparing to go down the same path. Pilots’ and controllers’ jobs as they are today will be redundant.

Imagine an airline crewroom in 2030. The airline has, say, 300 aeroplanes, but only about 50 pilots. About ten of these will be on duty in the crewroom at any one time. There they have several cockpit-like interfaces that can link them electronically to any of the fleet that’s airborne at the time. They have ten engine and systems engineers to help them. On the rare occasion that something anomalous occurs on an aeroplane, an alert sounds and all the flight and systems data for that aircraft are made available on the interface in real time, together with a systems diagnostic report. They can intervene as effectively as they could have done in the aircraft.

The aircraft commander will be the Purser – the senior cabin crew member – and the pilot back at base will be the driver.

It raises a lot of questions for the industry, especially the training industry and those who supply it. But also for the avionics industry. Avionics will still be essential, but the interfaces?

From the point of view of an airline management board, what’s not to like?

After the freighters have gone autonomous, the low cost carriers will be next. The legacy carriers will not take long to follow.

I am researching this issue right now. If you are in the industry and your company will probably play a part in this pilotless future, or if you totally disagree that it’s feasible, get in touch with me please.

48 Responses to The pilotless airliner is no longer unthinkable

  1. Aimee 21 August, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

    Could this be the answer? One day, DARPA would like to be able to build a machine that can think, sense and understand its environment, and find patterns and associations like the human mind does, with the brain’s small size and energy efficiency.

    http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-08/darpas-quest-build-computer-mimics-human-brain

    • Ahmad 22 August, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

      Hmmm…is that “Skynet” I see on the outer edge of the temporal radar scope?

    • Colin 23 August, 2013 at 8:59 am #

      As Werner Von Braun stated ““Man is the best computer we can put aboard a spacecraft, and the only one that can be mass produced with unskilled labor”.

      Given that governments are spending millions to safeguard the electrical, gas and communications infrastructure why are we inviting hackers to take control of a target with a lot of kinetic energy not to mention all the passengers on-board just to save the airline industry some salaries.

  2. Robert 21 August, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    David, what are your thoughts on the following?
    1) The vulnerability of the link(s) between the ground based crew and the aircraft. I’m not referring only to hacking, or satellite outage, but what if the on-board anomaly is computer based?
    2) Public acceptance of a pilot-less (on-board at least) aircraft.

  3. Roger 21 August, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

    I’m curious what will happen at the airport. The various service vehicles haven’t become unmanned or automated, and will probably be hard to deal with from an automated plane. Will there need to be more people on the ground driving the planes around in tugs (analogous to real tugboats and ships)? Could the layout of the airport and plane positioning change if there is no need for pilots?

    Do you have any figures for what proportion of overall flight expenses are due to pilots? I suspect it is relatively trivial, although does add up in absolute terms.

  4. Anas Ali 21 August, 2013 at 6:14 pm #

    I think pilots should be onboard the system should not be completely unmanned.. Consider this scenario…

    In the future all is well in aviation everything is automated and unmanned. the airlines have converted to an all unmanned fleet. Airliners are now bigger and carrying more passengers. But at the same time hackers have also become more advanced…. What if a guy sitting in his garage decides to hack into an aircraft system and a mid air collision occurs?? For the sake of argument lets consider both aircraft to be A380′s… the death toll would be way above the Tenerife accident…. that wouldn’t be good for aviation…

  5. Ben 21 August, 2013 at 7:12 pm #

    Poorly thought out and unsubstantiated post, David. You’ve been banging on this odd crusade for a while but it simply isn’t backed up by anything apart from conjecture and bad analysis of current operational trends.

    “The pilotless airliner is no longer unthinkable. It is just a matter of time before airliners have one pilot, and soon after that they will have none.”

    Yes, it’s a matter of time. But a very long matter of time. 2030 is laughable, even for single pilot airliners (large ones anyway).

    “and pilots are increasingly being told not to interfere with the automation”

    … Are they? Not that I’m aware of. They are using automation because it is more sophisticated but there is more and more emphasis on pilots questioning the automation and not trusting it blindly. Unless you can show any examples or studies that show airlines are telling their pilots “not to interfere with the automation” (which is ludicrous when you realise that the pilots CONTROL the automation) then this point is worthless.

    “Meanwhile it is already accepted – or even status quo – that unmanned autonomous or remotely piloted air vehicles will take over many of the military and general aviation tasks now performed by aircraft with a cockpit.”

    Yes, in areas where unmanned flight makes sense; ie, non safety critical flying. Flying with no people on board.

    “Accidents resulting from pilot inability to cope when the automation or guidance fails – or when it is simply not available – are becoming the new killers”

    This much is partly true – but how, exactly, would these accidents be reduced by taking the humans OUT? This clearly makes no sense.

    “The main barrier to pilotless commercial aircraft operation is the primitive air traffic control system we have at present.”

    Another worryingly naive statement from someone who is ostensibly experienced in aviation. The main barrier to pilotless commercial aircraft is not a technical one, it is that humans are safer.

    “and by 2030 controllers will not control traffic, they will be available in case something anomalous happens.”

    … David, have you even done the basic amount of research into what NEXTGEN and SESAR actually entail? Because it seems as if you have entirely magicked up their capabilities. Also to assume that SESAR will be fully in place by 2030 is… Well, let’s just say it’s optimistic.

    “they will be available in case something anomalous happens. That’s like the airline pilot’s job has been for some time”

    No it isn’t and no it hasn’t. This is something a BBC or Telegraph journalist might say – someone with no aviation background. For someone of your standing, these views are deeply troubling. You seem to be another ex pilot (granted, not airline) who likes to think of themselves as the “last vanguard of the true airmen”. Get real. You are living in cloud cuckoo land.

    “About ten of these will be on duty in the crewroom at any one time. There they have several cockpit-like interfaces that can link them electronically to any of the fleet that’s airborne at the time.”

    …2030? 2100 maybe. 2030 is crazy. There are airliners on the books today that will be delivered in 2020, and airliners in production which have projected production lines well into the 2030′s and beyond. They will not be able to be upgraded for this remote control capability so you are essentially talking about a new design, and there is not even a whiff of any new design with anywhere NEAR these insane capabilities you are dreaming up. Even if it was technically feasible to make this design safe in 2030 (which it won’t be), the time it would take for the operational and legal framework to adjust to it would mean that we’d be talking 2045, 2050 at the earliest.

    “From the point of view of an airline management board, what’s not to like?”

    The huge insurance premiums, droves of passengers refusing to board their aircraft and the death tolls?

    “I am researching this issue right now.”

    Not very well, it would seem.

    • David Learmount 22 August, 2013 at 9:12 am #

      Ben, this isn’t intended to be a statement of fact, and it isn’t written as such. It’s intended to provoke debate. The research I speak of will result in a feature quoting experts all over the industry and all sides of the debate so we can see the range of thinking that exists out there.

      But I can tell you this: the commercial pressure to take pilots out of airliners, once it becomes technically feasible (and that day is close) will be tremendous. If it had been possible today Ryanair would already have done it.

      Watch this space

      • Ben 22 August, 2013 at 10:05 pm #

        “Ben, this isn’t intended to be a statement of fact, and it isn’t written as such. It’s intended to provoke debate.”

        Weak, I’m afraid. Yes, this is clearly not a “statement of fact”, being, as it is, an opinion piece. It does, however, seem to be your opinion and as such it is open for attack. I do not think your opinion is anywhere close to accurate, and I don’t see a problem with saying so. You even invite people to question your thoughts at the end of the article; and in any case, although this piece is quite clearly not a news article there is certainly much that you have written that is provably false.

        “The research I speak of will result in a feature quoting experts all over the industry and all sides of the debate so we can see the range of thinking that exists out there.”

        I am looking forward to it – you are a respected journalist and I expect the resulting work to be of high standard. I just hope that you don’t let your personal opinions colour what you write too much.

        “But I can tell you this: the commercial pressure to take pilots out of airliners, once it becomes technically feasible (and that day is close) will be tremendous. If it had been possible today Ryanair would already have done it.”

        It is technically feasible to do it today. It has been technically feasible to do it for a long, long time. But is it feasible to do so, and maintain the current standard of aviation safety? The answer to that is an emphatic no, and that prospect is nowhere near close (close being, of course, relative – but if you define close as in the next 50 years, then no). Ryanair would not have done it because, despite what MOL espouses in order to get his name in the Daily Mail, the airline is deeply concerned with safety and understands, as any world class operator does, that airliner safety is in the hands of competent flight crew and should remain so. FR know as well as any other airline that it is not safe to take pilots out of airliners, and it will not remain safe for a while yet.

        Your talk of commercial pressures is misplaced. Yes, if a fully autonomous airliner (or remotely piloted) exhibits exactly the same safety record and insurance costs as a crewed airliner, then the argument for a conventionally crewed aircraft falls apart. However, as a crewed airliner will remain significantly safer for a while now, and then marginally safer for a while after that, there will not be sufficient pressure to make a drastic change such as the one you are talking about happen.

        “Watch this space”

        This space has been watched for many years, and just as the predictions of pilotless airliners in 1970 proved false, so will the predictions of the same in 2030.

        It seems as if much of the recent talk about fully automated airliners has been stimulated by the growth of UAVs, both in the military and commercial sphere. However, you have to consider what these UAVs are designed for, and what their purpose is – typically, they exist for missions that are better completed without a human on board. A human. Not a pilot. Granted, most platforms that are switching to UAVs have been pilot only, but this is the point – an airliner exists to carry passengers. By taking out the flight crew, you don’t achieve half of the things you do with an unmanned aircraft – you still have to have the life support systems, you need a big cabin, the insurance is high, you can’t stay in the air for very long periods of time, the ride has to be comfortable and most importantly the mission remains safety critical, unlike most UAV missions.

        I also have a few more issues with your article that I didn’t get round to last time.

        “The aircraft commander will be the Purser”

        … Really? You expect that this can occur by 2030? That would require such a massive legal change to what we have today that it’s impossible to imagine. Would a purser be required to sit ATPLs? I don’t think anybody would apply to be an FA if that were the case!

        “On the rare occasion that something anomalous occurs on an aeroplane, an alert sounds and all the flight and systems data for that aircraft are made available on the interface in real time, together with a systems diagnostic report.”

        Flight crew aren’t there just to respond to problems the plane tells them about. Many of the more recent dangerous accidents occurred without the aircraft registering any fault; for example, BA038. The aircraft gave the crew no error message because the engines did not fail. The pilots recognised the issue ONLY because they were carefully monitoring the parameters and because they felt subtle shifts in the aircraft’s trajectory and speed (neither of which would be noticed by a remote pilot operating several flights, as you suggest could happen).

        Or take TK1951. The aircraft registered no fault – the autothrottle went into FLARE/RETARD mode, and it was correct in doing so, as far as the aircraft was concerned. Now clearly the crew did not catch this in time but a remote operator would have NO chance. The answer then is to improve pilot training, not remove them and make it harder for them to catch such things.

        In your magical 2030 world, these aircraft would simply crash without giving the ground based crew any indication there was something wrong until it was too late. In addition, we have the problem that a pilot monitoring several flights would quickly lose situational awareness. This would mean that you would need a pilot monitoring every single flight – so why not just have them on the plane!

        Flight Director errors are not totally uncommon, and normally they are registered and dealt with by the crew. What about the 2005 incident where a BA A319 lost all power during a climb, and the Captain maintained pitch and power by using the horizon alone as reference? Events such as these show that an on-board crew is required, even in today’s – and tomorrow’s – world of highly sophisticated computers.

        In short, there is a questionable financial argument for such an arrangement, a non existent safety argument, and a truly gargantuan legal and operational mountain to climb. It will not happen in the near future; it cannot. Again, if you said 2100, I’d be right there with you. Maybe even a little earlier – but 2030 is a joke, and a bad one.

        • Ben 22 August, 2013 at 10:08 pm #

          Just to clear up any confusion – the BA incident I write of lost electrical power, not thrust.

    • Dan D 23 August, 2013 at 3:42 am #

      Ben, Well said sir…I couldn’t agree with you more!

    • Roger 2 23 August, 2013 at 7:47 am #

      The only thing I can agree with in your ridicule of David’s flotation of this idea is the timescale. I am sure it will happen but maybe not so soon. Even then commercial pressures may force the pace and it may be airworthiness authorities that will struggle to keep up and administer new legislation together with all the fine detail that will be required. I too am a little concerned about hacking, not least by governments, but this may come down to hardened control rules built into the aeroplane which cannot be violated.
      Exciting times ahead I think.

  6. Alexei 21 August, 2013 at 9:39 pm #

    Hello David,
    I’m pleased to read an article which matches quite exactly what I think about future industry development. I do believe this is going to be “the next big thing” in Aviation! And for sure freighters are going to be first to fly autonomously.
    Speaking about the technical requirements for autonomous flight, we are already very close to it. There are people out there who make their C152 fly without a pilot! The commercial planes today are already equipped with necessary avionics and mechanics. One thing to add is a reliable and hacker-safe connection to the ground station. Therefore I’m convinced we will not see a newly designed airplane for the pilot-less operations but a usual A320/B737 with only one, and than zero cockpit seats (just like some decades ago the 747 or other models went from 3-4 crew to 2).
    It’s not on technical but on human & moral side that the real difficulty of automated flight is. On one side we have absolutely no legal frame for those operations. On the other side a normal human (including me and you!) would refuse to board a plane without a pilot for the moment. The technology is not proven yet, first I want to see some years of those freighters flying around without a pilot!
    But once the technical part is ruled out and well established … people like Ryanair will not even tell you that you have no captain on board. And many passengers will buy their ticket guided by the only characteristic you really see – the price of the ticket.

  7. Pranesh 21 August, 2013 at 10:00 pm #

    Ben, I will side with you on this.

  8. Dan Dair 21 August, 2013 at 11:55 pm #

    In addition to aviation, there is a massive amount of automation research relating to road & rail transport as well.
    Obviously, driverless trains have been around for a while now and generally speaking no-one gets distressed by this anymore.
    There is one HUGE difference however, between air and ground-based automatic transport systems;
    When the control systems fail (for any reason) the system defaults to STOP.
    If you’re in a driverless train & the power goes out, it stops.
    If you’re in a driverless train & the computer/s glitch, it stops.
    If you’re in a driverless train & a mechanical, software or network problem is detected, it stops.
    Maybe you’re left in the dark, in a tunnel somewhere & the emergency phone (& your mobile) don’t work. But you can be reasonably sure a work-crew or rescue team will show-up eventually.

    When there are systems in place that allow an aircraft to successfully land at ANY suitable (as opposed to makeshift) runway all by itself, independent of external control, after a total electrical failure,
    or that can restart it’s engines in flight after they’ve unexpectedly shut down due to unanticipated ash-cloud ingestion,
    or that can fly a go-around off the tarmac after a landing incident where an unanticipated consequence of the software design has reduced control (LH44 Munich to Hamburg)
    I will be as content to fly pilotless, as I would to travel driverless by train.

    By 2030, the next generation of A380 replacement will probably be flying.
    1000 seats, capable of flying half-way around the world non-stop.
    Pick any airport you like which is within 100 miles of a major population centre & then ask yourself what the consequences would be of that aircraft, fully-loaded with passengers and FUEL for the 20+ hour flight, crashing into that major population centre.

    If it really can’t happen, I’m all for it.
    But no matter how much they tell me it can’t happen, I’ll still be expecting it to, eventually..

    I can’t see how, in the event of a problem, a pilotless aircraft can always be guaranteed to default to STOP safely.

  9. Kris Van der Plas 22 August, 2013 at 9:07 am #

    Hi David,

    To balance against your post, some info for you that may indicate that the (automation) pendulum may have swung a bit too far and seems to be now swinging a bit back.

    EASA published on April 23 the Safety Information Bulletin SIB 2013-05 on Manual Flight Training and Operations. SIBs are for information only; they do not contain mandatory instructions.

    This is the third of three SIBs addressing Automation and Manual Flying competencies, published between 2010 and 2013. The two first publications were:
    • SIB 2010-33 Flight Deck Automation Policy – Mode Awareness and Energy State Management, published on 18 Nov 2010.
    • SIB 2013-02 Stall and Stick Pusher Training, published on 22 Jan 2013.

    This SIB 2013-05 on Manual Flight Training and Operations encourages manual flying during recurrent simulator training and also, when appropriate, during flight operations.
    A similar recommendation has been issued through other publications, such as the FAA SAFO 13002 of 4 Jan 2013.
    The overall aim is to reach an appropriate balance between the use of automation and the need to maintain pilot manual flying skills, needed in case of automation failure or disconnection, or when an aircraft is dispatched with an inoperative auto-flight system.
    Operational principles should be developed by operators and included in their Automation Policy.
    The operator should identify appropriate opportunities for pilots to practice their manual flying skills, taking into account factors such as (not an exhaustive list):
    • Phase of flight;
    • Workload conditions;
    • Altitude/Flight Level (non-RVSM);
    • Meteorological conditions;
    • Traffic density;
    • ATC and ATM procedures;
    • Pilot and crew experience;
    • Operator operational experience.

    Compared to the US SAFO, the EASA SIB introduces risk control measures by encouraging the use SMS and FDM to monitor the potential impact on the number, magnitude and pattern of deviations from consolidated average flight precision, to effectively balance the benefits and the drawbacks of manual flying and adjust policies accordingly.

    As you know, we in the European Cockpit Association have our own view on pilot training. I know you have seen our Pilot Training Compass, but I post the link nevertheless for the readers of your blog who are not aware yet:https://www.eurocockpit.be/sites/default/files/eca_pilot_training_compass_back_to_the_future_13_0228_0.pdf). In the Compass, one of the key concepts is the need for a pilot to be able to switch, swiftly and as circumstances demand, between flight deck management skills and basic flying skills. We also put a lot of emphasis on the training of manual flying skills as early as possible during the training syllabus.

    Let me add another issue for your consideration: no matter how good/smart/… automation is or can become, it will be impossible to forecast every possible hick-up/failure/… In afct, the higher the complexity, the bigger the impact when such an event (a black swan) occurs. Complex systems fail in complex ways. Even if one would be able to build a very robust automated system, it can break or fail too. And at some point, inevitably it will. The only element that can step in at that time, the only one to learn from that event and take the proper action is the human. There are two prerequisites here:
    1. The pilot needs to be properly trained for that role -> see our Compass
    2. The pilots should always be onboard the airplane for one very simple reason: pilots in the airplane cockpit have skin in the game, pilots on ground stations don’t.

    Hope the above adds to your food for thought.

    Regs,
    Kris

    • David Learmount 22 August, 2013 at 9:28 am #

      Thanks Kris

      Your probably already know that I completely subscribe to the ECA’s view, and – now you have shown it to me – the EASA SIB’s advice.

      Even at the present level of automation, the pilots must be enabled to be fully competent as pilots, because if they are not, they might as well not be there. If the automation fails, then the pilot fails too, unfortunately the industry drive will be to improve the automation, not train the pilots better.

      Of course my favoured solution would be to train the pilots better in full acknowledgement of the effect automation has on traditional piloting skills, but also train them better in automation management. Then we wouldn’t need complete automation.

      Although I am pretty sure that the pilotless passenger airliner will not become reality by 2030, it is definitely just a matter of time. I am starting this debate now because those of us who are pilots (retired in my case), need to know what the future holds so we can adapt to it. And so does everybody else – including the passengers!

  10. Renato Stiefenhofer 22 August, 2013 at 10:36 am #

    Nice try, David.

    David Learmount admits: “.. Ben, this isn’t intended to be a statement of fact, and it isn’t written as such. It’s intended to provoke debate. ”

    David, this is very lame. And cheap. And not even smart. And dangerous!

    Real Airline Pilots are disappointed by your statements. You are so mainstream. Talking like a passenger or a home-flight-simulator pilot. Were you ever a real pilot?

    Answer : Obviously not!
    Here`s you next foolish statement: “Airliners are already highly automated, and pilots are increasingly being told not to interfere with the automation.”

    This is a lie, David. Time to retire (again).
    Or time to read my book. Do you speak german?

    Regards from the real world, the left seat of a modern 747.

    • David Learmount 22 August, 2013 at 12:15 pm #

      Renato, we don’t do abusiveness here. And when we disagree with a point of view, we provide an argued alternative.

      If you don’t know my professional background, don’t guess at it. Your guess was completely wrong.

      I’m leaving your comment up here because I have no objection to disagreement – I even called for it. And because your contemptuousness has, fortunately, not quite crossed the line.

    • Drew Cooper 22 August, 2013 at 2:54 pm #

      Your condescension adds nothing to the debate and makes one wonder how real your world is from the left seat.

  11. Pierre 22 August, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    Based on the amount of time it takes on developing an aircraft, and the political barriers that it must go through (FAA, EASA, unions, etc), there’s no way 2030 is even remotely feasible.

  12. SYLVESTRE GOUX 22 August, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

    Dear David,
    If you fly to CDG you can test a “fully” automated train as we have in several french cities including some lines of the Paris Métro. As the military drones they are in fact not fully automated an they have operators in distant stations. The task could seem simple, but why it is not possible to get full automation? Loitering for hours over a battlefield is not a complex task but drones need pilots too. The truth is that to automatize a task you need first to describe it precisely and then you can start to work. Erik Hollnagel, in his book “The ETTO Principle” has demonstrated that a task could only be proceduralised if it is descriptible. If we are not able to describe all the possibilities of a boarding train, it seems difficult to modelize a complex activity like a flight. Worse, in case of complex automation failure the task needs more expertise than in a non automated system as the recent history of aviation and nuclear incidents have shown. So if you want a carreer as a flight deck crew and are young, don’t worry you have a lot of time ahead…
    Best regards

  13. Iain 22 August, 2013 at 1:15 pm #

    It’s entirely possible that unmanned airliners will be flying around the world by 2030, because it’s my belief that whatever the US military wants, they’ll always get it. If they want perfection in UAV technology (which they do) then that’s what they’ll get, and most such technologies will inevitably flow into the civilian aerospace sector through defence contractors like Boeing.

    I do see a potential problem with accident liability though, in past history it’s always easy for the airline to blame the pilot for any accidents. However once you remove the pilot from the aircraft then the automation and the operation of the airline becomes the center of media and government scrutiny. This could open a huge can of worms for the aircraft manufacturers and the airlines, especially if it involves Americans as they’re a very litigious lot, and negative media attention can sink airlines, like Valujet.

    IMO the only way they can get around this is through a dedicated ‘safety officer’, but this person would not be what we currently know as a ‘pilot’. This safety officer will probably receive no more training than the crew in a McDonalds restaurant, he/she will be on the lowest minimum wage in the EU (or Zimbabwe), working conditions will be terrible with no worker’s rights, there will be no real career progression because all company promises are lies, and he/she will be initially blamed in any accidents. With sufficient marketing there will be no shortage of wannabes to facilitate the high staff turnover, once some of those dreamers finally realise that they’re being screwed.

    From the perspective of the ground-based ‘pilot’ the potential liability is just as bad, especially if you’re unlucky enough to be located in Southern Europe or Asia because you’ll most likely go to jail for very many years if you have a crash involving substantial casualties. You might even get murdered, like that poor Swiss controller after the mid-air collision years ago. In an aviation accident most ordinary people can empathize more with the pilot, who they know will very likely die alongside the passengers in an accident, than a desk jockey playing a video game in a faraway air-conditioned office – someone who has no ‘skin’ in the game.

    This is a bit off-topic, but It’s very unfortunate that one of the most cherished and respected professions currently in existence is coming to an end. However we must understand that advancements in robotics and automation will eventually destroy most of the jobs which consists of routine work. And those workers with jobs involving non-routine work (except those with very high skill requirements) would likely see their working conditions collapse due to a flood of jobseekers who are eager to take their jobs. Millions will be unemployed and impoverished, and people with little transferable skills, like pilots, will be most vulnerable to long-term unemployment and poverty. In the future most productivity growth will eventually come from robots and the fruits of such productivity will go straight to the pockets of those who own the robots – the CEOs and the shareholders, not ordinary people as they’re already redundant. IMO The only professions which are safe are the ones involving the development of cutting-edge technology, or in areas where people would pay a substantial premium for human-derived information, human contact, entrepreneurship and problem solving.

  14. Donald Romani 22 August, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

    Well, as the saying goes, you first.

    As an automation engineer and flight dynamicist, programing for known cases is easy… having computer systems that can react correctly to unknown cases is the real issue.

    Sorry, I’ll pass.

    As to having a ground bsaed pilot handel an emergency, really? Do you have the slightest concept of communicaitons delay? Have you the slightest concept of encrypted, secure communicaitons delay? For. Get. About. IT!

    • David Learmount 22 August, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

      Donald – thanks for your comment. Can I play devil’s advocate?

      If you, as a systems engineer, know that systems will occasionally fail but you know you cannot predict every combination of failure modes, can you not plan a system reaction that trips out the faulty system(s), and assesses the basics of what is happening to the aeroplane in terms of safe or unsafe flight, and keeps the flight parameters within the envelope? Meanwhile the remote pilot and his/her team can make decisions about whether to divert/continue/recover to base.

      This is probably simplistic because I am not a systems engineer, but you’re the expert, is it plausible?

      • Mario 3 September, 2013 at 11:37 pm #

        “If you, as a systems engineer, know that systems will occasionally fail but you know you cannot predict every combination of failure modes, can you not plan a system reaction that trips out the faulty system(s), and assesses the basics of what is happening to the aeroplane in terms of safe or unsafe flight, and keeps the flight parameters within the envelope? ”

        With this statement you are assuming that the aircraft is always going to depart free of all defects. Lets face it, if automation is going to fix an airborne malfunction, the computer system is going to have to start with a perfectly operating machine due to the multitude of malfunctions that could occur.

        Now add an already existing malfunction to the mix and the complexity can grow exponentially. That is a major fault in your process. Most airliners normally depart with maintenance faults and to think that every time an aircraft landed with a maintenance defect, it would have to be fixed before departing again would be uneconomical.

        Airplanes only make money when they are moving and when you consider the minimum turn times in airline operations these days, it wouldn’t be worth the cost of removing the pilot who can take an aircraft with numerous discrepancies and if all else fails…hand fly the airplane. Something you’ll never be able to teach a computer, especially if it’s the cause of your malfunction in the first place.

  15. longtimeobserver 22 August, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

    UAVs have a 30% fleet scrappage rate. Not accident rate, which is much higher, that is a 30% complete write-off rate.

    Absent the presumption of flawless safety, there is no air transport demand.

    We do not need UAVs.

    What is actually needed today and into the future is more 1970s-era basic piloting training, knowledge, skills and operating experience — not rote-learned button-pushing/automation management with little to no stick and rudder recourse on those cloudy (or Learmount’s “cloudless”) days.

  16. Patrick Smith 22 August, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

    Oh no, not this again.

    For the record, I’m an airline pilot and air travel writer.

    Mr. Learmount states, “The main barrier to pilotless commercial aircraft operation is the primitive air traffic control system we have at present.”

    Well, that’s just ONE of the barriers.

    And then this…“Airliners are already highly automated, and pilots are increasingly being told not to interfere with the automation.”

    I can’t begin to explain all the many things that are wrong with this statement. On the whole, though, this piece is another good example of people’s tendency to wildly exaggerate the capabilities of cockpit automation, and failing to understanding how pilots interact with that automation.

    Patrick Smith

  17. Craig 22 August, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

    As an airline pilot it is disappointing to read an article written that shows little understanding of the complexities and realities of modern aviation in jet aircraft.

    Also having a background in UAV operations I can tell you that the write off rate of these vehicles is staggering. Just for one example, systems do not exist for many of these aircraft to land in x-winds exceeding 15 knots. When trying to land in wind speeds in excess of this the aircraft is often damaged or written off entirely. Lost communications with these aircraft is also common, which has resulted in numerous aircraft deemed “lost”, never to be seen again.

    Real automatic landing systems on some of the most advanced aircraft (Boeing 777) are not able to cope with cross winds exceeding 25 knots. As pilots we are trained to handle landing in cross winds exceeding 38 knots – which is the design capability of the Boeing 777.

    Back when the movie Star Wars came out many though we would be travelling through space by the year 2000. How far are we away from that reality? Your article strikes me as a dream, something that is in reality far away from being implemented. Writing about it like it is around the corner seems to demonstrate a lack of knowledge of current aircraft systems.

  18. Renato Stiefenhofer 22 August, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

    David Learmount : “Renato, we don’t do abusiveness here. And when we disagree with a point of view, we provide an argued alternative.”

    Ok, David. Touchee.

    Fact is, that other journalists take your article about “pilotless flying” as THE TRUTH.

    As an airline pilot I strongly oppose to your personal opinion, because the general public is being totally misled by your “facts”. These facts are nothing but dreams of some engineers and armchair pilots.
    Do you really think, the majority of the future passengers would be sitting in a pilotless airplane, guided by cheap indian IT-pilots in Bangalore? In bad weather? With system failures? Forget it.

    My research about your piloting background is “RAF C-130 pilot”. Hope I`m wrong, because this is about civilian cockpits in airliners. I have spent some time in the air force, too. This is not some military game, David! It is a mission with people on board. Do you really believe in drones? We pilots certainly do not.

    David, would you be so kind and tell us about your experience on the different types you have flown as a commander? It is very important for your us, your readers. At least the ones which have a professional background and hope to improve the current situation of rather unsafe ways to recruit a new generation of pilots.

    BTW, I normally like your articles. Honestly. They are written in a way, even non aviation people understand. But we all should know our limits, David. As a preacher you have a responsibility. Towards the industry and towards the general public.

    Countless CRM instructors do a very good job to improve the situation in our cockpits. What we desperatly need are better trained pilots. More difficult tests to get an ATP and an evaluation process which accepts only the best pilots to fly our present and future airplanes. And, of course, better pay for young pilots.

    Obviously the LCC`s go into the exacly opposite direction. Pay-to-fly copilots are going to flood the market. In a way we`ll get your “pilotless airplanes” sooner then you think.

    Pilotless airliners, in my opinion; not in the next 50 years !

    Regards Renato

  19. The Alpine 22 August, 2013 at 6:42 pm #

    Hallo David

    I think most of us would acknowledge that autonomous craft will fly and passengers will journey on them without a second thought some day, as we would acknowledge that interstellar flight is a possibility in time. However, I think you are greatly underestimating the engineering challenges and consequently the cost advantage of a passenger aircraft capable of fully autonomous flight in the Near Future.

    When we can look back at the accident records we find, over and over again, failures which engineers did not anticipate or reasoned were improbable. The Airbus is a great example of a nevertheless fine machine that thousands of world`s finest engineers have spent years working on, but have yet to anticipate all contingencies.

    I don`t say this is a reflection of weak engineering, but rather that engineers are human too and flight is such an incredible dynamic activity it`s going to require some form of equally dynamic artificial intelligence (pilot like???) to achieve the best levels of safety that can be achieved by successfully integrating man and machine. At what point will that be cost effective? If it ever is, I think 40-50 years is nearer the mark.

    I have heard the remote pilot option mentioned several times, but can you imagine the incredible sophistication of the telemetry that would be required for passenger operations? I`m thinking specifically of system control, system displays, loss of signal redundancy and, critically, security. When you think how expensive a modern Level D simulator is and think about the cost of something which would be even more sophisticated in many ways… It almost doesn`t bear thinking about the cost.

    A picture you described imagined a pilot suddenly brought in when things go wrong in a “crew room” environment. Thinking here about human factors, I just cannot see how we could expect someone to react with the same speed and precision, thousands of miles away and, crucially, out of context.

    I think you will find those “operators” will be challenged to overcome even greater levels of complacency, quite besides chronic boredom and alarming levels of detachment. Consider the 3:29 minutes and seconds of the the Hudson ditching. That was the time between bird impact and touchdown. I find it impossible to imagine a remote operator, suddenly dropped into that situation, spilling his coffee, would have been able to achieve the same result. There is something to be said for having a pilot with full perspective and vested interest in the outcome!

    I think you are also underestimating what a positive difference well trained crew make every day. Minor errors, whatever their source, are prevented from becoming incidents, incidents from accidents. Many of the former, by definition, are never recorded and this is what would terrify me about sitting in the back of an autonomous aircraft. These are things only pilots know, but are almost impossible to quantify.

    Military drones and surveillance in dangerous, but relatively simplified operating environments are one thing, but at the end of the day, isn`t it just cheaper to have a pilot and optimise the man-machine interface? For passenger safety, I think it is.

  20. Alan Wright 22 August, 2013 at 7:36 pm #

    Hi David,

    I have many responses with reason to the many major incidents in aviation and the Human Input that has averted or reduced the severity of imminent disasters.

    The list is all too long and most of them do not hit the headlines or are even talked about (most are just forgotten about all too easily). This is especially true as many airline management’s and regulators now [in my opinion] wish to close down any talk of safety issues within their own companies or domains of regulation.

    One of these incidents to the forefront of mind of Pilot necessity is Sioux City and United Flight 232. Without Pilot involment in this incident, the number of deaths would have been substantially higher but which required; direct Pilot involvement, judgement, feeling and skills to overcome a catastrophic situation to a more favourable chance of survival to all onboard.

    Another which is most recent on my mind, is US Airways 1549 and the “Miracle on the Hudson” and the actions of both Pilots. What could the remote control Pilot back in the OPS room have done in that situation? No matter how you look at that incident, no amount of automation from base would have led to a better outcome. In fact quite the contrary, because the first thing used was the Mach 1 Eyeball. The rest is history and up for debate and qualities you can’t always teach but which the industry needs to evaluate and deal with such as; experience, judgment, calmness and overall professionalism.

    BA flight 038: The incident’s severity was minimised by last minute Pilot input and judgment on Final Approach, which reduced a horrendous [system/design/mechanical/enviromental] malfunction generating into impending death. This was undertaken by fantastically trained and respected crew doing the job they were supposed to do.

    Finally and last of my examples but by no means least, is the DHL A300 incident that happened over Baghdad, which you know a great deal about as you reported on it. If there had been someone in the OPS room in this incident, how do you think this situation would have panned out?

    All this doesn’t even look at the complexities of ground operations and such functions and how an Automated system would deal with this. It also doesn’t discuss the failure, crash and critical failure rate of UAV’s and Drones.

    The truth of the matter is that Airline Management see Pilots as a cost and are looking to cut them from the balance sheet, Ryanair would be an example of that. Added to this is a culture that Pilot’s are meaningless and aren’t that important in terms of the whole Safety Management System. We can see that there is a major philosophical problem to the way Pilots are now being portrayed and treated because they are now seen as Driver’s and just a cost. But this takes out of the equation, huge responsibilities within relation to not just their primary function [to fly an Aeroplane from A - B], but their safety responsibilities and skills to avoid and minimise critical incidents and the ability to solve problems as best as possible. Maybe if they were treated and regarded as skilful professionals, whom are an absolute functional and active part of the safety management system, things might change.

    Pilots are the last line of defence, but they are the defence that deals with the unexpected and which cannot be placed into any Risk Management Matrix.

    If this philosophical and procedural necessity was understood and conveyed throughout the industry and beyond. We probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. Maybe Ryanair and others should hope to learn that lesson.

  21. Joe 22 August, 2013 at 8:06 pm #

    The cost of everything and the value of nothing….

    In the 1960’s plans were made for everyone to drive to work in their very own skycar….

    Back in the 1970’s people thought artificial intelligence was just around the corner…

    By 2030 your plane won’t need a pilot….

    The big flaw with this argument is of course that everyone only looks at the cost of pilots flying today and how companies have had the longest uninterrupted streak of pilot expenses dropping, so much so that some novice pilots will even pay to fly. Combine this with a few economic shocks and an increase in retirement age and the thought of paying pilots more sends chills down the back of most airline managers.

    The problem on the horizon, however is that projections actually show an imminent shortage of cheap pilots.

    So is automation and drone flying the solution? Unfortunately not. As my computer instructor used to say every program you write should be 10% programming and 90% error checking. Looking at commercial software these days even the big players are producing software with large flaws. Try to pass the same off to meet the stresses of the aviation environment and it will cost tens of billions, with even more in cost over-runs effectively making investments in the B787 and A380 seem like small fries. To top it all off it would take years upon years to do privately.

    Taking today’s automation systems as a benchmark, one would have to ask how often can you just leave VNAV and LNAV to it without interfering? The answer is hardly ever. Throw in a bit of weather and the system is completely overwhelmed. Even something as simple as CPDLC is having a lot of issues to try to implement. With the slow timeframes of aviation certifications, robust systems for what is in use today are still decades away.

    The next thing that really needs to be looked at is the performance of drones with the military. Having spoken to a few people that used to operate them, they consistently told me that the most difficult thing about flying them was not having the sensory feedback of sitting in them. That is probably why the used to have a habit of going of the side of the runway in Kandahar. At least the military was pretty good at clearing the runway in 15 minutes. But I don’t think passengers would be too happy.

    Just to top things off, take into account all the other things mentioned on this thread like insurance premiums, bandwidth, customer confidence, etc. and pilot-less aircraft are dead in the water. Only push will be from the military but even they will cool things down when they have enough development issues and cost over-runs.

    In the end the when airlines look at how expensive the alternatives to pilots are, they will be happy to just stick with the pilots. Instead the focus will become how to train up the next generation as cheaply as possible, resulting in more pressure to accept the MPL and pressure on sim manufacturers to build 100,000 euro home pc simulators. Then force the regulators to certify them as if they are level D simulators. Perhaps the flying license of the future will consist of 30 hours in an ultralight followed by 100 hours on a FSX based simulator. Squeeze the insurers a bit to accept low premiums for such highly trained individuals. Then throw in a reduced time to command. An ATPL after all should be all that’s needed to fly a B737 in command. Airlines could then charge some aspiring young man 100,000 euro and a 10 year bond for the privilege. New pilots could have a command in 18 months and then not be allowed to leave for another 8 and a half years. Pilot shortage solved.

    On a final note it is interesting that the airline you mention still does all loadsheets manually. Now there’s a real vote of confidence in automation. Perhaps you should speak to Jetblue on matters of automation, then again they would be clever enough to know that pilot-less airliners are a pipe dream, and in the end it will be the economics of it that will make it so.

  22. Stefano 22 August, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

    I do agree with Renato, we are talking about technology, systems, automation and I do agree that probably by 2030 it should be ready to have an A320 or 737 guided from the ground, but David you forgot something really important…the passengers pay their tickets and most of the actual passengers are still afraid of flying even with two PILOTS in the cockpit!!! It’s impossible they would fly with no pilots on board!! IMPOSSIBLE at least for the next three generations!!

    I do also agree with the fact that more the system is complex more the human brain is need to understand all the possibilities of failure, at the end all the systems are designed by humans and only another human can solve it the complex failures that you can have, another point that you didn’t mention is the judgement that a human can have in delicate situation (ex. Weather, x-wind, fuel …)

    In conclusion I also wanted to say a few words about what you say about ATC (since I’m a controller), the system will also be old, but even in this area the computer (which already helps a lot) only recognizes the risks in an objective manner, while people recognize the risks differently and this I do not think you will ever be able to give to a computer.

  23. Mario 23 August, 2013 at 3:06 am #

    Stratospheric Flight Sciences has been working on the concept of pilotless ultra-high efficiency cargo plane since 2006 (www.stratflight.com).

  24. Mario 23 August, 2013 at 3:24 am #

    Stratospheric Flight Sciences has been working on a pilotless ultra-efficiency cargo airplane concept since 2006. (www.stratflight.com)

  25. Andrea 23 August, 2013 at 7:01 am #

    Hi,

    I fully align myself with the crowd of people who completely disagree with the early possibility of an unmanned airplane carrying passengers.

    There is on big element which we do not consider, when comparing military aviation to airline transport industry. That element is the reason why military industry uses drones in places of “old style” airplanes.
    One of the main reasons for this what I would call a “downgrade” into the plane systems, is that in a risk zone like that one of a war, it is more acceptable to loose a plane other than the plane together with its crew.
    Let’s do not forget that a military crew training can by far overpass the cost of the drone itself.
    Only in such a “high risk of life” circumstance, it is possible to accept such a flying environment.

    In an environment where the possible losses are not just a matter of money, but a matter of human lives who deliberately did not join the risks connected to a war zone, unmanned airplanes lose their attractiveness, both economically and lately morally.

    Besides this mere business analysis, I would like to disagree completely, and I really underline it, I DISAGREE COMPLETELY with the statement that airliners are requesting pilots to interfere less and less with automation. This statement is COMPLETELY WRONG.
    Actually it is exactly the opposite. Pilots are being more and more encouraged to use the automation only as a tool, but they are as well strongly encouraged not become “A CHILD OF THE MAGENTA LINE”.
    Recent incidents have happened right because of this excessive abuse of automation.

    If we really would like to reach a safer aviation level, we could and we should improve the human interaction with planes and airplane systems.
    We could strengthen for example our culture about CRM. We know so much about it, yet we can still observe quite a few deficiencies clearly connected to some of the recent accidents.

    Let’s do not forget that the reason behind the so called trend “Child of the magenta line”, is connected to the airplane manufacturers that had to justify the high costs of systems like flight directors and company. The only way to sell those features was to convince the aviation community that that was by far the safest alternative.
    We needed accidents to prove that high automation is a concept highly contaminated by interests.

    And here we are, the companies who best promoted automation in the past are now trying to make a game change (I call it game return), so they encourage pilots to feel comfortable mainly when flying manually and raw data.

    David, I remember quite well a video where you clearly affirm that this is a moment where aviation needs to realize how dangerous high automation could be.
    I am quite surprised that such an article is written by you…
    Is this article really written by you?

    Best regards,
    Andrea

  26. Bart 23 August, 2013 at 10:06 am #

    David,

    I stopped reading the mostly emotional reactions after a couple.
    Clearly this issue will be driven by politics rather than airworthiness and safety analyses.

    As an engineer I can say that it is perfectly technically possible to convert even a currently produced modern airliner to a pilotless (or optionally piloted) air vehicle. Admittedly at a high cost mainly for certification. To actually put it in commercial service is another story.
    There will be huge pressure to delay and debating, developing certification requirements for the pilotless (commercial) air transport system as it is no longer a self-contained aircraft. But the industry is technically on the right track and gaining experience in other aviation sectors like the helicopter utility and military.

    Personally, my guess is that there will not be a strictly pilotless aircraft in the foreseeable future but there will be a long period of a couple of decades with optionally piloted aircraft. This would be better marketable for the OEM’s and possibly better adaptable to changing safety requirements for piloted/unpiloted commercial air transport. And it would leave the decision to operate to the commercial sector.

  27. Gary 23 August, 2013 at 10:17 am #

    Allow me to ask you one question David:

    What would the fate of the 464 souls aboard QF32, the Airbus A380 that departed Singapore on 4 November 2010, have been had this flight not been manned by pilots?

    I know the answer. I also believe that any technology that could be devised to overcome the the problems faced on that flight alone, would be cost-prohibitive to any airline, and would still not cover every possible situation created by multiple malfunctions.

  28. skeptic 23 August, 2013 at 3:46 pm #

    I am skeptical about un-manned airliners not because of technology but because the supposed cost savings from eliminating a pilot will make up for the other investments that an airliner has to make.

    For example, airlines could get rid of their pilots, but as the article states, you will still need a ground base. Those are employees one has to pay.

    Also, these airliners are going to have increased acquisition costs due to very robust avionics. Those avionics are going to require programers and more technicians than an airliner would normally have, and programmer salaries are not cheap.

    These are some of the problems encountered by the global hawk program. While the global hawk has unique capabilities, it has ended up being extremely expensive, more so than the U-2, and might be cancelled as a result.

    • Maciek B 30 August, 2013 at 1:17 pm #

      Then the outsourcing kicks in and suddenly your flight is managed by some tired employee in a place when crow flies backwards. The concept itself is usually great but when life (cutting costs) happens, well..

  29. Maciek B 30 August, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

    My two cents.

    There’s a bigger picture if you shift your focus from just the tech perspective towards how the global automation performs and thus takes over various jobs.

    Let’s assume your theory is true and the timespan more or less acurate. In 30+ years jobs in airline industry are cut by 75%. Almost all of the ground operations are automated, just a final supervisor to do the checklist and so on. ATCs are all quiet places, automated plane guidance on approach and takeoff, automated taxiways etc.

    And then comes the broadly defined human factor. Given the fact that the airline industry is just one of many which may encounter heavy automation – how does the society cope with that in terms of loosing jobs, long training and teaching new skills needed to take the outstanding work? I mean it’s a global process which has already started years ago. Granted the machines took many of the jobs before, but then again the tech development advanced so rapidly in last 20 years we cannot predict what happens next.

    I’ve been hiking recently and went on a ride on a cable car to the top of the mountain. Even though it’s properly maintaned, has a modern operations center I felt not so great knowing that a closest person qualified enough in case of any emergency is a mile away and a hundred feet below. And that’s just a simple cable car. Now imagine a fully loaded superjumbo starting an Atlantic crossing, bad weather and so on. The technology in collision with the human way of thinking is well, not that rigid. I personally like the reassuring presence of calm men in the cockpit which I can see upon boarding, even though as an IT engineer I always have to take the reason upfront.

    Don’t forget the security issues, too. The shift towards automation would involve creating state of the art safety procedures, firewalls, any other measures to assure a boy with standard notebook computer, even a smartphone could not breach the system. And it happened not so long ago as you all know.

  30. Tailspin45 2 September, 2013 at 12:54 am #

    As a pilot for almost 50 years, with an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, you’d expect I’d disagree with the conjectures in the original post.

    But I find myself pondering the fellas back in the late 20s who thought the idea of a closed cockpit was a bad idea—couldn’t feel the breeze on their swarthy cheeks in a slip, you see.

    As a former Navy flyer I also ponder the recent successful autonomous carrier landings of a UAV, and the imminent trials of autonomous mid-air refueling.

    I also wonder if the proverbial “slap’s hand on forehead” will make us all look dumb when some alternative mode of transport appears out of the blue.

    Arthur Clarke, in a wonderful old book titled ‘Profiles of the Future’ opined that projections such as these suffer from two flaws: failure of imagination and failure of nerve.

    Commenters here seem to have defined the line between the two rather clearly.

  31. Peter La Franchi 10 September, 2013 at 11:26 pm #

    Glad to see that you have finally come to the party David. How many years is it now since the European Commission funded studies of the technical feasibility of an unmanned airliner was completed by the DLR-led team? The content is as relevant as ever all these years later.

  32. David Learmount 11 September, 2013 at 8:24 am #

    Feasibility is one thing, Peter. Thinkability did not apply then. It’s thinkable now, and being driven forward by the proliferating numbers of accidents involving pilots unable to cope when the automation fails. The latter is making it a self-fulfilling prophesy.

  33. joao 21 October, 2013 at 8:45 pm #

    hey guys, you guys speak of automation of the future like a great event alias is, but for many of you who already have their jobs, talk about this topic is just to entertain you … but think in your children, they may have the wish to be commercial pilots, and at that time what they will say .. ums forget here 20 years the planes are going to be automatic … (do not think it costs a lot to hear a child say to forget your dream).
    I’m 15 years old and want to be a commercial pilot, but they are reading this, I get scared, I lose the will to live, and come to think they there will be a day that humans never will be accurate, robots will replace us . I just want to be an airline pilot, in the future … penssem it: (Man commands the machine and the machine never command the man) penssem on this subject, penssem in your children and your grandchildren …

  34. John 23 April, 2014 at 10:06 am #

    I don’t agree at all with most of what is said in this article. Don’t you think there are more important issues to be solved before looking into automation of airliners? We should develop more fuel efficient aircraft, that would be useful! What would be the point of having a fully automated aircraft, I really can’t see any reasons for that to happen. Don’t you remember the say ” The engine is the heart of the plane, but the pilot is it’s soul” ? Since the begining, aviation has been a perfect example of an incredible man-machine relationship. Yes they are more and more flown by computers, but that is no reason! Why do you think pilots train for years and years before entering a cockpit?

    Think also about all those ambitious people my age, dreaming to go up their and make a living out of air travel. Your careers are safe but what about the next generation?

    Yes many accidents have been caused by human error, but pilots have also saved so many lives! BA 38, US Airways Flight 1549, etc. We always hear in the news about accidents caused by man, but never of the amount of peopled saved by man. A computer cannot think, it just follows codes and programs. It would have not retracted the flaps at Heathrow when the situation was critical and the aircraft was losing power. It what not have ditched on the Hudson river after engine failure. Computers will never have the ability of thought, the capability to deal with the unexpected. Why not increase the level of training of pilots instead of taking them away from the cockpit.

    No, I’m definitly against that idea. And do you think that many people would be willing to fly nearly at the speed of sound at 35,000ft with no human behind it all? Yes there would be a crew on the ground but that would be hardly reasuring for the 500 people on board.

  35. Brett 10 September, 2014 at 1:40 am #

    Hi David,

    What isn’t addressed is the number of times pilots “make it safe” in the ordinary everyday course of their jobs.
    Yes you hear of accidents made by human error – an argument for having two pilots. Two heads are better than one! But what you don’t hear of is the pilots avoiding and preventing accidents. The near misses that don’t make it into the papers.
    But this industry is driven by accountants who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Yes it will save a few bucks until the first un-piloted aircraft is a smoking hole in the ground.
    Then how many people will line up for a cheap airfare?

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