With many airplanes already pretty much flying themselves, and drone technology continuing to develop, the idea of a pilotless passenger plane is hardly far-fetched. In fact, aviation giant Airbus has been looking into the idea for a number of years.
Speaking at the Digital Life and Design conference in Munich, Germany, on Sunday, January 20, the company’s chief technology officer, Grazia Vittadini, said Airbus is hoping that artificial intelligence will soon be advanced enough for it to make the move to completely autonomous planes, Bloomberg reported.
“That’s what we’re looking into, artificial intelligence, to free up pilots from more mundane routines,” Vittadini said during an event at the conference.
Most large currently operate with two pilots, though Airbus is looking to replace one with computer systems, before later replacing both for fully autonomous flights.
The benefits of autonomous planes for airlines are obvious. For starters, it would mean lower pilot costs, with a report by investment bank UBS in 2017 estimating that the industry spends more than $30 billion on pilots annually. The report also suggested that significant fuel savings could be made as autonomous planes would operate flights in a more efficient manner.
Autonomous planes would also solve the growing problem of pilot shortages. Many carriers are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit new pilots, with reasons cited as “a recent increase in the flying hours required for commercial pilots, the aging pilot workforce, fewer new pilots coming out of the military, and a general decline of interest in the career,” Business Insider reported in 2018.
UBS pointed out that “the technology to remotely control military drones already exists, and this technology could be adapted to control … small to medium-sized business jets and, eventually, commercial aviation.”
But in Munich, Germany on Sunday, Vittadini said a big challenge standing in the way of a complete move to autonomous aircraft is convincing regulators that the technology is ready.
“Explainability of artificial intelligence is a real challenge for us when it comes to the certification of products,” the executive said.
Another hurdle — possibly the greatest of all — will be to persuade airline passengers that pilotless planes are a good idea. The UBS report found that 54 percent of 8,000 respondents said they would probably refuse to board a pilotless aircraft, even if the fare was cheaper than a piloted alternative. Only 17 percent said they’d be happy to fly on a plane without a pilot.
It seems likely that before passenger aircraft, cargo planes will be the first to go pilotless. As the technology improves and the number of autonomous flights increases, Airbus hopes the public will gradually warm to the idea of flights controlled entirely by computers.
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