Thales Aerospace has followed Embraer in setting out its thinking on the possible introduction of single-crew-capable airliners, as part of its 'Cockpit 3.0' studies aimed at the the 2030 timeframe.
"Embraer says that they want to think about an aircraft that can be flown with a single pilot. It's very interesting," says Joseph Huysseune, Thales Aerospace innovation director for commercial aircraft.
"Of course the convenient answer is to say 'forget it, it will never happen', and certainly the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 replacements will have two crew in the cockpit," says Huysseune.
"But looking far to the horizon, we have clever ideas to go in that direction. As an equipment and systems supplier we have got to be ready when it comes, and to be pro-active in proposing solutions."
He adds: "We are very open minded and we don't want to neglect any track that can help us to be the first to propose innovative solutions."
The 'Cockpit 3.0' project is aimed at reducing crew workload, complexity and scope for human error, as well as the physical size of the cockpit to maximise volume available for carrying payload. This, Thales believes, will deliver by 2030 aircraft cockpits that are safer, simpler, easier to train for, smaller, and single-crew capable.
"Maybe we can reduce the workload so that one of the crew can focus on the piloting, and the other could perform other tasks, like for example preparing for the next flight or handling the catering on the ground," says Denis Bonnet, Thales head of cockpit safety and human engineering.
"We are considering a lot of scenarios," he says. "What can we do with the resources we would save by having the single pilot? Is the second pilot necessarily on the aircraft, or could they be on the ground?"
Many issues remain to be resolved, including the questions of whether safety could be degraded by not having a second pilot in the cockpit to question the actions of the first, what would happen if the single pilot became incapacitated, and how to equip trainee pilots with the skills required to captain an aircraft.
"The answer may not be the same for all sectors," says Gil Michielin, Thales Aerospace vice president and general manager for commercial aircraft solutions. "For instance, the one-pilot crew for freight transport might happen earlier than for passenger transport. Obviously we have a say, but in the end the market will decide."