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Pilot? What pilot?

Is autonomous flight in our future?

If you are aiming for a career aloft piloting an aircraft, this image could be jarring: At reliable.co, a wing-mounted camera peers into the cockpit of a venerable Cessna 172 in flight. What’s missing? The pilot!
Illustration by Shaw Nielsen
Illustration by Shaw Nielsen

That unmanned Skyhawk prancing through the air around San Jose in September 2019 is a harbinger of what is yet to come.

Reliable Robotics based in Mountain View, California, was launched in 2017 by Robert Rose and Juerg Frefel, two past employees of SpaceX and Tesla. The goal was to get airplanes flying autonomously as quickly as possible, and they did it. The company completed a remotely operated test flight of a Cessna 208 Caravan in February 2021. The next evolution for Reliable is to equip a fleet of Caravans with its self-flying systems for cargo haulers such as the FedEx feeder companies.

A competitor to Reliable is Xwing, another startup that arrived on the scene with the first full flight of a Caravan in autonomous mode in February 2021. That aircraft taxied from Xwing’s hangar in Concord, California, took off, landed, and returned to the gate entirely on its own. The flight was monitored by a pilot on board and from afar in the hangar’s mission control center.

Merlin Labs is yet another entrant into the pilotless fray. Flush with $25 million in funding from GV (formerly Google Ventures) and First Round Capital, it partnered with Dynamic Aviation to begin putting its pilotless airplane technology into commercial operation. As part of its association with Dynamic, Merlin will outfit 55 Beechcraft King Airs with its autonomous flight technology.

The airline industry could save an estimated $35 billion annually if it could remove pilots from the flight deck and turn over the show entirely to “George.” Are pilotless airplanes that far-fetched?Even jet manufacturers are getting into the act. Airbus performed its first fully automatic vision-based takeoff using an Airbus 350-1000 test aircraft at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport in France in 2019.

So, are pilotless airplanes that far-fetched? Consider that modern airliners and corporate aircraft have an array of automated systems that, after the pilots punch data into a box called the flight management system (FMS) and conduct a manual takeoff, can climb to altitude, intercept a route, descend toward an approach, intercept an ILS, and then land in near zero/zero conditions.

The airline industry could save an estimated $35 billion annually if it could remove pilots from the flight deck and turn over the show entirely to “George.” With senior pilots making $300,000 annually and the typical pilot pulling in $147,000, that payroll represents a huge drain on airline revenue. Throw in flight training centers, Level D simulators, sim technicians, instructors, and maintenance, the temptation to slice that expense is formidable.

The present robust pilot hiring climate is also contributing to the fantasy of astronomical savings by reducing or eliminating the need for pilots. More than 800,000 new pilots may be needed over the next 20 years, and there is a shortage of pilots. Outfitting freighters, from Caravans to Boeing 777s, with fully automated flight would mitigate the shortage by making the human pilot unnecessary in many applications. All of this is scary to aspiring commercial pilots.

Although autonomous aircraft might be a positive thing for the small freight haulers flying Caravans and Falcon 20s, can this idea fly with passengers? Well, maybe not. Here’s why:

Politics. The airline industry employs tens of thousands of aviators and support personnel worldwide who transport billions of passengers. Think of widespread unemployment if computers take over the flying. Airline pilots are backed by powerful unions that use collective bargaining, campaign contributions, and political lobbying.

Regulations. After the Boeing 737 Max crashes, where software and systems failures were mostly to blame, imagine the huge challenge to approve totally automated aircraft without human intervention. The time frame for testing and regulations development would take years if not decades.

Public acceptance. Swiss bank UBS published a survey in 2017 that found only 17 percent of its sample group would be willing to fly without a pilot. However, a follow-up study by software firm Ansys in 2019 showed that nearly 70 percent of passengers expect to travel in an autonomous aircraft in their lifetime and 58 percent were willing to travel on one within the next decade.

For the time being, pursuing that dream of flying an airliner should be pretty safe today. As for 2050, all bets are off.

Wayne Phillips

Wayne Phillips manages the Airline Training Orientation Program.

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