How long will it take to have pilotless planes?

Five answers about the pilotless aircraft

Bank UBS caused a sensation with a study on pilotless aviation. "Building systems that are less dependent on pilots could increase safety and reduce costs for the industry," writes the institute. "We see the possibility of $ 35 billion in cost savings over two decades." But where does the industry stand when it comes to autonomous flying? Time for some questions and answers:

How is it going?
On the one hand, many technologies are already available and in use. The autopilot has long been doing the work in passenger aircraft at cruising altitude, landings and more. The military uses unmanned drones and drives the technology forward. The German Aerospace Center announced only in mid-July that it had tested “a new type of aircraft for the development of future drones ready for series production” together with Airbus Defense and Space. Sagitta flew autonomously on a preprogrammed course for 7 minutes. BAE Systems is currently testing a pilotless Jetstream 31.

On the other hand, in many places it is still unclear where the journey is going. An example: The UBS study writes about “remotely controlled planes”, ie aircraft that are remotely controlled from the ground. Boeing's head of development, Mike Sinnett, said in an interview with aeroTELEGRAPH that the only way to be one hundred percent secure was “not to have a control path to the ground”. So for him, it's not about remote control, but about artificial intelligence, a learning algorithm on board.

So when does it start?
The key question is when a technology will be ready for autonomous flying that is at least as safe as aviation is today. When asked how much time the aircraft manufacturer Boeing - which is currently preparing initial tests with the technology - still needs, Sinnett said: “I can't even begin to predict. I can imagine it happening in less than five years. For commercial operation it will probably take longer. "

Small cargo planes in remote regions could lead the way. UBS has visualized its estimates, starting with the digital tower through to commercial passenger flights with “reduced workload in the cockpit”:

Can it even work?
Nobody knows. "Maybe zero pilots are not available," said Boeing manager Sinnett. But then the number of pilots could possibly be reduced. "Maybe then you can fly a route like Seattle-Dubai with fewer than five pilots," said Sinnett. UBS is also looking into the possibility of only having one pilot in the cockpit.

What do the passengers think?
Of 8,000 respondents surveyed by UBS, 54 percent said it was unlikely to fly an airplane without human pilots. This contrasted with 17 percent who would probably do it. Americans were less skeptical than Germans and French, for example. Better educated and younger respondents (18 to 34 years of age) were also more open to a purely computer-controlled flight.

How do the pilots react?
The pilots are of course not very enthusiastic about the prospect of being replaced by computers. "Even if the technical development advances quickly, the computer will certainly not take over the cockpit of an aircraft in the foreseeable future," said Markus Wahl, spokesman for the German cockpit pilots' association in response to the study. In contrast to a computer, only humans are able to find creative solutions in dynamic situations and thus save lives.

"An example of this is the failure of both engines after a bird strike on US Airways flight 1549 and the subsequent emergency landing on the Hudson, which Chesley Sullenberger and his crew made, in which all occupants survived," writes Cockpit. "It is more than questionable whether such a situation, which was actually not intended by the aircraft designers, can be solved similarly by a computer."

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