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Would you ever fly on a Pilotless plane?

Alexandra O'Loughlin21 Mar 2017 Posted in: FTA, News, airlines, become a pilot, Pilotless plane

Technology is constantly evolving and is ever present in even the simplest of tasks that we do on a daily basis. Take, for example, the luxury of being able to travel from London to New Zealand in under 24 hours or being able to FaceTime relatives thousands of miles away. These are all things that would have seemed like nothing more than a delusional fantasy back in the early 1900s, when powered flight was in its infancy.

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The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, were the catalyst for what was to become a feat of engineering that has revolutionised and shaped the way that we travel and conduct valuable trade across the world. Today in a completely modernised world, we take this advent of technology completely for granted and underestimate the capabilities it has to change the industry further down the line. With various different methods of automation already being common place in the cockpit for most Jet airliners, it is only a matter of time before there will be a way to control an aircraft without human input. Indeed, Autopilot systems are so detailed and precise now that it means aircraft can even carry out auto landings. Even Stephen Fry himself detailed on ‘QI’ that a Pilot is only ever really in control of a flight for 3 minutes, while computers achieve the rest. Which leads us to pose the all-important question – are Pilot’s soon to become a thing of the past? 


With the addition of Drones and other Pilotless projects, such as the BAE Systems £400,000 designed prototype of the Jetstream 31, are we now paving the way towards Pilotless commercial flight? With regards to the project, Maureen McCue, of BAE Systems, said: “Our priority as always is to demonstrate the safe and effective operation of autonomous systems. We are working towards the possibility of flying our own unmanned systems in a highly controlled environment in the UK.”

Parimal Kopardekar, manager of the safe autonomous system operations project at NASA’s Ames Research Center, echoes Maureen’s sentiments: “The industry is starting to come out and say we are willing to put our R&D money into that”.

Whilst this may be a vision of BAE systems and NASA, it may seem that the general consensus of the public may not be all too readily excited at the prospect of travelling aboard such an aircraft. With a staggering 28% of British people claiming to be afraid of flying, will removing an integral part of the flight deck do anything to quash those already heightened senses of fear? For many, the reassurance of seeing two smartly dressed Pilots entering the Flight Deck brings not only a sense of calm, but also one of relaxation.

Whilst acknowledging that computers are extremely intelligent, being able to compute navigation through the ultra-precise GPS waypoints that are now commonplace in aviation, there is still something somewhat pacifying about knowing that there are humans at the front that are able to assist with the operation. One thing that computers do not have that humans do is emotion and this is the one thing that is irreplaceable.

Take, for example, the incident that occurred on January 15 2009 with US Airways Flight 1549. The decisive actions of Captain Chesley Sullenberger III lead to him being able to safely manage to land the Airbus A320 he was flying on the Hudson River, with no loss of life after suffering dual engine failure. Captain Sullenberger was there to reassure his passengers and deal with the emergency effectively and efficiently. If a sole computer was at the helm of the aircraft as opposed to Captain Sullenberger, it is questionable as to whether or not there would have been as positive an outcome. The calm evacuation and rescue coordination would certainly not have been able to have been dealt with by a computer either. This suggests that despite computers having many positive traits, they are not at the advanced level where they can deplore emotion and common sense to rationalise a problem, meaning on that level they will always fall second place to a human.





In 2017 so far and, indeed indicative of recent years, the industry is noting a significant increase in numbers of people traveling by air. With an average of around only 5% of people in the population having ever travelled by air, due in part to the majority of people in the world living in lower economically developed countries, budget airlines like Norwegian, Kululu.com and fastjet have seized the opportunity to capitalise and made flying more accessible to the masses through lower airfares.

With the rise in numbers, this is leading to more orders for aircraft (Ryanair for example expecting to take delivery of 193 aircraft over the next few years), which results in a necessity for more Pilots and therefore coming back to the age old issue of supply and demand. Whilst automation in aircraft is becoming ever more prevalent in aircraft as technology improves, it seems that for now the airlines are still going to be on the lookout for new Pilots. Whether the job role of Pilots will turn more from a ‘hands on role’ to more of a supervisory role in a fully automated process in the future is still entirely debatable.

I think as a conclusion we can be safe in saying that regardless of whatever improvements there are in the future to automated processes, airlines and consumers alike are still going to want to have a human interface present in the Flight Deck. It makes sense, as thousands of hours of experience and emotion from a Pilot can never be fully assimilated by a computer and it is experience that really helps in making those all-important common sense decisions in times of need. To finish with a great quote from American economist Martin Feldstein: “So just as I want Pilots on the planes that I fly, when it comes to monetary policy, I want to think that there is someone with sound judgement at the controls”. Martin’s comments resonate strongly. At the end of the day, passengers are paying for a service and part of that service involves a certain level of expectation; one that comes with being used to having a human on the Flight Deck. It has been the same since the dawn of time and long may it continue.

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