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Pilotless planes to be ready by 2025, but people are not

Pilotless or pointless? People may not be ready for planes without pilots just yet


We are yet to see commercial adoption of driverless cars because it is perceived as scary to be sitting in a vehicle that isn’t being controlled by a living, breathing human being. But you know what could be scarier? Pilotless planes! Autonomous planes are expected to become mainstream as early as 2025. However, people may not be ready to absorb the idea of passengers being air-borne with no human assistance.

According to a UBS report, while the idea of pilotless planes is technically feasible and could benefit the aviation industry economically, only a few people are brave enough to actually travel in such a plane. Out of the 8,000 people surveyed globally, only 17 percent said they would be willing to fly in a fully autonomous plane.

The multi-billion aviation industry is known to spend as much on training of flight crew to make it a successful model. However, if autonomous planes are commercialized, the industry is expected to save up to $35 billion annually, and make flights safer and more efficient. Up to an estimated $3 billion in pilot compensation savings can be achieved for the business jet industry while flight optimization savings could be over $1 billion, among other benefits. From the consumer point of view, the ticket prices could be reduced by about 11 percent if human pilots are replaced with AI. ALSO READ: Move over Google and Ford; Indian man builds himself a self-driving Tata Nano

Similar to driverless cars, there are two main obstacles – perception and regulation. The report details that the aerospace and defence sectors have been exploring the idea of pilotless planes for two decades. Drawing the parallel between drones and planes, the report suggests that the technology to control the unmanned aerial vehicles already exists and it could be adapted to control civil aviation, including small to medium-sized business jets, and eventually to commercial aircraft. Its application in the commercial industry, however, will be specific to flights with under seven hours of continuous flying.

While commercial drones can be flown around with little or no expertise without particularly damaging life or property, the case is not the same when it comes to flying a plane full of passengers. Half of the respondents said that they wouldn’t buy a ticket for a pilotless flight even if was cheaper than a traditional piloted flight. Interestingly, young and more educated respondents, aged between 18 to 34 years, were open to the idea of pilotless planes, while people from countries such as Germany and France were not too receptive to the idea of a self-flying plane. RELATED: Full autonomy not possible or desirable in self-driving cars: Gartner

One might argue that the existing systems for traditional aircraft also nullifies years of research and pilotless plane is nothing but a distant dream. However, UBS analysts expect that the awareness efforts for such technology will begin soon and by the 2025 target, only commercial self-flying aircraft will be rolled out to demonstrate how the flights can safely fly from one point to the other without any issue. Once there is enough confidence in the system, the next step will be to remove pilots, from a two-person cockpit to just one person monitoring the system and taking charge, if needed, before human pilots are completely phased out eventually.

As we have seen with Google‘s driverless cars, a significant amount of trust is needed by people and regulatory bodies to allow independent vehicles driving or flying on their own. While the risks involved is in equal measure when it comes to cars or planes, the latter is certainly a far cry from reality. Until then, we can wait and watch to see how Dubai’s flying taxi drones perform when trials begin by the end of this year. ALSO READ: Uber grounds its self-driving cars fleet after crash in Arizona

  • Published Date: August 9, 2017 5:31 PM IST