Boeing has filed for a US patent on an aircraft control system that could be configured for two, one or zero pilots. The no-pilot mode would receive input from a remotely located operator by way of wireless signals, patent application 20090105891 states.

The development echoes similar work that Sikorsky has said it is performing. Sikorsky president Jeff Pino has said the company will increasingly turn to fly-by-wire designs in part to allow the military to use helicopters for missions too dangerous for pilots or for situations where pilots are injured. "We envision a switch in the cockpit of all of our helicopters with indicators for 'No pilot', 'One pilot' and 'Two pilots'," Pino stated at the February 2008 Helicopter Association International Expo.

For its part, Boeing has been investigating the area for the US military with its unmanned Little Bird. A prototype of the special forces helicopter as been flying for several years as a pseudo unmanned aircraft, in that pilots ride along to monitor the aircraft and can take over the controls if need be.
The more comprehensive system envisioned in the patent however would apply to civil and military systems, in part helping operators to reduce expenses.

“Costs associated providing a trained and qualified cockpit flight crew are a substantial portion of the recurring costs of aircraft operation,” the airframer says in the 23 April patent application. “Flight crew, and especially pilot, reduction in at least some portion of the flight operations may significantly reduce aircraft operating costs, either by reducing the number of aircraft personnel, or by freeing up pilots to perform other, mission related tasks.”

Boeing’s system would provide for “greater mission flexibility” by allowing the flight commander “to choose the appropriate level of aircraft manning based on mission importance, difficulty or risk.”

In addition to obvious cost advantages in supplying less crew, Boeing says the system could also allow for manned ferrying of vehicles capable of unmanned operations within airspace that would otherwise prohibit unmanned operations and provide for gradual integration of unmanned vehicles “within existing customer mission operations.”

That integration could begin with the vehicles flying as manned aircraft in initial development and deployment periods and later be shifted to unmanned operations as the “customer (military, commercial, etc) becomes comfortable in the operation of such vehicles,” says Boeing.