Aerospace and innovation have gone hand-in-hand since the days of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Airplanes were once simple metal tubes powered by propellers. Long-haul flying meant four engines and at least three pilots on the flight deck at all times.
Today, aircraft only require two pilots and are built mostly of carbon composites. Even on the longest routes—more than 17 hours—regulators permit airlines to fly with only two engines. Given the inexorable nature of technological evolution, it seems logical to expect that soon only a single pilot will be required. And beyond that, given the advent of driverless technology on the ground and unmanned aircraft above, could pilotless commercial airliners be far off?
A range of companies, from aerospace giants like Boeing Co. and Airbus SE to tiny startups, are working on various aspects of a difficult puzzle: How to create the next generation of air travel—the one where pilots are far less ubiquitous and an array of new flying vehicles communicate with each other. And more importantly, how to make that world as safe as the one we have now.
“It is not as complicated as it sounds and it is not as dangerous as it sounds,” says Elpert Hodge, executive vice president of M2C Aerospace Inc., a New England start-up working to build a flight system for single-pilot commercial aircraft operations. The start-up hopes to meet airlines’ desire to cut costs and address a pilot shortage that’s already curtailed air service in some regions. The technology to achieve this is likely to be available soon. The comfort level of regulators and average citizens will almost certainly lag behind.
“How do we maintain levels of safety that we enjoy today … when you’ve got an artificial intelligence-based system in the cockpit?” Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s chief technology officer, said in September at a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “How do you show and certify that to be safe to the point where the flying public would say, ‘Yes, I trust that.’”
Airlines are reluctant to even broach the topic, given how passengers may react to being one stricken pilot away from an empty cockpit. Even less so when it comes to fully automatic aircraft: ”It’s certainly not anything that American is working on or trying to make happen,” Doug Parker, chief executive of the world’s largest airline, American Airlines Group Inc., said of autonomous aircraft at an industry forum Sept. 12. “The comfort [pilots] provide is not something that most consumers are going to want to forego.”
But for the air-cargo industry, where package containers don’t require safety assurances, the prospect of single-pilot operations—and eventually autonomous flight—holds a definite appeal, especially in areas where air cargo growth may outpace pilot supply.
“Clearly for transporting cargo, you could see autonomous aircraft,” Hyslop said. “It’s going to be much longer, if ever, if we’d see that for passenger travel though.” That doesn’t matter to Wall Street, though. Airline analysts are already counting the billions of dollars in savings airlines could reap by culling humans.
“Long-haul commercial flights could see reduced cockpit crews from 2023, shortly after cargo planes,” analysts at UBS Group AG wrote in an extensive July report. They estimated a profit potential of $15 billion for flying with a single pilot and $35 billion if airplanes were to fly themselves.
None of this is as far-fetched as it might seem. Adoption of new technology in aviation has risen significantly over the past few years, according to the UBS report. The analysts conceded, though, that they expect ”consumer acceptance to be a challenge.” Surveys by the bank found 63 percent of people oppose flying in a pilotless aircraft while only 52 percent were averse to single-pilot planes. But then again, what did people think of autonomous cars just a few years ago?
A key component of airline automation will be AI. As the technology spreads into more areas, from cars to factories to electronics, more consumers are apt to grow comfortable with it.
“There is a percentage of millennials who have no problem with that,” says Hodge, a former pilot. “So as much as you can demonstrate the safety of it, that’s what brings the public along.” Throw in some cost savings, and safety concerns begin to dissipate: The same UBS survey found that 50 percent more people would fly in a single-pilot aircraft if it offered a ticket discount.
The topic has garnered interest in Washington as well. The House version of a budget bill this year funding the Federal Aviation Administration included language that would start a “research and development program in support of single-piloted cargo aircraft assisted with remote piloting and computer piloting.” The measure, which was stripped from the compromise bill signed into law Oct. 5, was introduced by Texas Republican Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. He sought to address concerns with major Chinese investments into AI and autonomous flight, according to a committee staffer.
The Cargo Airline Association, which represents carriers such as FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc., wasn’t involved in the House bill, said Steve Alterman, the association’s president. While the CAA doesn’t have a position on the idea, pilot associations do: They’re aghast.
“Having anything less than two [pilots] is inviting catastrophe,” said Lee Collins, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, which represents more than 30,000 pilots, including those at American Airlines Group Inc. and UPS.
“This technology is neither mature nor proven yet to the extent that it can ensure safety,” Collins said, adding that autonomous piloting systems are “a terrorist hijacker’s absolute dream come true.” Tim Cannoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest US pilot union, echoed his concerns in a recent column: “Single-piloted operations should be totally unacceptable to the American public because they are unsafe.” Pilots argue that aviation requires human judgment in the cockpit to respond to the myriad unexpected events that can befall a flight.