Advancements in technology are not limited to entertainment, such as smartphones and televisions, but cover a wide range of categories.  However, there are areas that when technology appears to be doing something that the public would easily accept, the opposite reaction occurs and many may question or resist the change. 

The push for autonomous vehicles has been a dream for decades and now that manufacturers, along with evolving technology, are closer to making this a reality; people are more concerned about what could happen if the tech is flawed rather than if this type of driving could be accomplished. 

Speaking about autonomous vehicles, many marvels at how drones of diverse sizes can be operated by a single individual without being inside to navigate it.  Therefore, the next step is to aim higher and achieve flying a commercial airplane without human pilots at the controls; sort of.

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While some people believe this technology is already available and that airplanes can fly themselves without human control, they would be sorely mistaken.  When a pilot puts the plane on autopilot, this does not mean the aircraft is in total control and the pilot can read a book or take a nap.  There are still things that require human interaction to make sure the aircraft reaches its’ destination instead of arriving in a different location. 

Nevertheless, the technology is advancing at a rate where commercial aircraft are predicted to be pilotless around 2030.  Today’s discussion will look at the motivation(s) of airlines to go in this direction, as well as, would anyone be willing to trust this technology to fly on pilotless airplanes?

Why the Push Towards Autonomous Flying?

There was a time where individuals dreamed about being able to fly, not just to get to a specific destination quicker, but to be able to soar above the clouds and see the world from a unique perspective.  Another reason was to demonstrate how, using ingenuity and determination, people could accomplish feats that were once considered impossible. 

Although these reasons could be used to explain the desire for autonomous flying, aviation’s main reason for this can be summed up in just one word; money.  According to a study conducted by the UBS, the industry could end up saving each year the amount of $35 billion dollars if they were to have their planes go pilotless.  That is a huge reason why the race is on to perfect technology that can make this happen.

Naturally, many are wondering if this could really be achieved in their lifetime or far after their demise.  The report states that the tech needed to control remote-controlled planes could be achieved by 2025; yet, advances after 2030 can possibly result in automated helicopters and business jets, as well as, reaching pilotless commercial planes. 

Furthermore, the UBS report stated that the technologies in development today will enable the aircraft to assist and back up the pilot in all the flight phases, removing the pilot from manual control and systems operations in all types of situations. 

Considering commercial flights presently can be operated mostly with on-board computers while pilots only fly the plane on an average of several minutes; it seems only natural to move forward with the on-board computers doing all the flying, right?

The Issues with Autonomous Flying

While some would like aviation to reach this threshold with commercial airplanes, it appears a lot more are not as thrilled to see this happen.  The report from the UBS showed that the tech needed to achieve autonomous flying could be accomplished by 2025 and would take another five years or more to become a reality; yet, the same report predicted that the number of fliers who would be willing to travel without pilots was only 17%! 

Although the 83% of travelers who said they would not fly on an airplane without any pilots could change their minds over the next decade, aviators would need to do a massive public relations campaign to alter the opinions of so many would-be fliers. 

One solution to this perception would be to remind frequent travelers that in today’s commercial airplanes, on-board computers practically do all the flying without the assistance of pilots; however, those that are knowledgeable would counter back that this belief is incorrect.

Contrary to what most people may believe, commercial airliners do not have the ability to fly themselves, which includes being on autopilot.  The need for pilots is important considering that systems and navigating the aircraft become important to compensate for sudden wind gusts and turbulence. 

Also, pilots need to stay in communication with air traffic controllers in case their flight path needs to be adjusted, as well as, getting ready for the next part of their flight.  Regardless, the aviation industry is hopeful this technology will become available soon and would be tried out first in cargo planes and if successful, applied to other areas until the final candidate being commercial flights. 

Whether future passengers may be skeptical about flying on a pilotless airline, this would be tried out first in cargo planes, and if successful, applied to other areas until the final candidate being commercial flights.  While future passengers may not like flying on a pilotless airline, this may be the only choice available if future projections made by the aviation industry.

What Will the Fate of Flying be?

Earlier, we discussed the possible motivations behind aviation’s push toward autonomous airplanes that would get rid of pilots at the controls; however, there was one factor that I did not mention.  Based on a range of factors, airlines are predicting a shortage of pilots in the coming decades. 

Since air traffic is steadily growing in areas like China and the Middle East, airlines going to these countries will need more airplanes and pilots to take travelers to their locations.  This means pilots will be in huge demand and paid higher salaries that some airlines will be unable to pay. 

So, moving to pilotless airplanes would boost profits for industries that can utilize the technology; however, will passengers consider putting their trust into tech that could be compromised?  Hopefully, safeguards will be in place that ensures future fliers there is no chance of someone hacking into the airline’s system if the industry wants people to use their services.  The question that remains is would you fly on a pilotless airplane?

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