Pilotless Planes

In today’s society, planes have done everything. From crashing into California homes, disappearing from Malaysia, and even landing on the Hudson River, planes have left most, if not all people asking, “What are these pilots doing when they are in the cockpit. Are they even flying the plane?” 

But what if pilots never existed? And what if planes flew without them? Planes without pilots, a new technological innovation that is redefining what it means to travel around the world. Scientists have designed a new and safer way for people to travel in the air, potentially eliminating all problems that have been affecting airlines. The New York Times explains how government agencies are experimenting with replacing pilots with either robots or remote operators. Passengers would no longer hear the voice of their pilot throughout their flight, but instead the silence of a robot fully operating the liftoff, landing, and anything else in between. But believe it or not, most commercial airplanes are already heavily automated. In fact, pilots operating a Boeing 777 spend only seven minutes manually flying their plane. The rest of the time, while the passengers are relaxing and thinking their pilot is still flying the plane, the plane is actually flying itself.

Here is how it works

In most modern aircrafts, there is a computer autopilot that tracks the plane’s position using motion sensors and dead reckoning. The computer software within these aircrafts gives pilots the option of complete freedom from manual flying. On the other hand, most critics believe such reliance on the computer software leads to lack of practice and infrequent use of pilots’ skills. But regardless of what critics believe, this aircraft phenomenon has been set in motion and shows no sign of stopping.

According to CNN, an expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has mentioned that commercial airliners could be piloted by remote control. Even James Albaugh, the president and CEO of Boeing, announced that a “pilotless” airliner is being constructed. It is a matter of when; not how. Until then many new issues, especially legal issues, must be resolved. Senior Software Developer of Delta Airlines, Ernest Phillips, believes that a technological change this drastic will not come into full effect until generations from now. “People have this fear of being in the air while having a pilot control their fate from the ground”, Phillips mentions when discussing a counter argument to automated planes. This reasonable fear, along with many other factors, explains why the switch from human-piloted to “pilotless” planes has not been immediate. 

Though it will take time for all airlines to fully transform their airline operations, expert scientists have already created two models for these automated planes. The first academic model would have pilots flying the aircrafts by remote control from “cockpits” on the ground. Imagine a child flying a toy helicopter in the air as she stands in the backyard with the remote control. The second model would have a flight attendant on the plane that serves as a backup pilot in case of emergency on the auto-piloted airplane. The same person who would serve peanuts and sprite to passengers would potentially switch roles and control the aircraft if need be. 

Screen Shot 2017-05-29 at 5.22.16 PM.png

Interestingly, aircrafts these days have already implemented specific automated techniques in planes that show, to a certain extent, how automated planes are safer than planes with pilots. In The New York Times, automated aircrafts are described as smarter, more efficient, and securer than their manual counterparts. For instance, David Mindell, an aeronautics and astronautics professor at MIT describes how current Airbuses know how to avoid flying into a mountain, warning the pilot and even being equipped with software to take over for the pilot if necessary. 

What comes next? During the summer of 2015, The Defense Advanced Research Projects (a Pentagon research organization) took the next step with developing the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System. This system has a robot installed in the right seat of a military aircraft to act as a co-pilot. The robot, reminiscent of R2D2 from Star Wars, can speak, listen, manipulate flight controls, and even read flight instruments while onboard. It has many skills that a human pilot would have flying an aircraft and can even manage the difficult liftoff and touchdown maneuvers. 

Currently, companies and universities are working with the Pentagon research organization to officially develop the robot. They want it to be “visually aware” according to The New York Times, and have the ability to control the airplane by manipulating instruments that were made for human hands. This includes the pilot’s yoke and pedals, a variety of knobs, and different buttons throughout the cockpit. Ultimately, the inventors want the robot to rely on voice recognition technology and speech synthesis to communicate with a human pilot. 

On the other hand, NASA is considering a different idea. Instead of the R2D2 look-alike, there would be a single remote operator that would serve as the co-pilot for multiple aircrafts. Ideally, there would be a ground controller that would function as a dispatcher by simultaneously managing a dozen or more flights. While this might sound like a hectic case of multi-tasking, the ground controller would only need to worry about one plane at a specific time or land a plane if there was a serious emergency. 


     With all this technological advancement and research, many people still believe that automated aircrafts can never replace manual aircrafts. Even the airline companies believe that this shift could be extremely risky. While eliminating full-time human pilots will save airline companies more money than one would expect, the associated risks are too high. Amy Pritchett said, “Technology can have its own costs,” and she is absolutely right. The more technology used on an airplane, the greater chance for a piece to fail.

    To further this argument, experts have even considered the material costs for having an automated airplane. CNN says it could cost up to hundreds of billions of dollars to build the infrastructure needed for computer-piloted airplanes. The transition of airline companies from two human pilots to one would be very difficult, hence computerizing two pilots add an even larger huge safety factor, making the latter essentially impossible according to Hansman from MIT. 

Yet, even with these reasons, automated airplanes are not a dead dream. Think about self-driven cars or automated trains at the airport. All of these ideas started from somewhere small. Just think back to the days when the notion of humans ever achieving flight was a asinine fantasy, at least until the Wright Brothers first took off. Inventions take time to build, and humans need time to adapt to their presence. Just because it could cost up to hundreds of billions of dollars to make the infrastructure needed for these “pilotless” airplanes, does not mean scientists and other experts cannot do it. As mentioned earlier, it is not a matter of how they would build it but when. 

Automated/self-controlled aircrafts are just at the very beginning development stage, and people really do believe that with time there could be a potential shift from manual to computerized piloting. The effect it would have transport and safety would be grand yet unpredictable. But, for now, fully computer-piloted commercial aircrafts will have to reside on the drawing board for just a bit longer.