The future of air travel doesn’t need pilots

astraeaForget about the driverless car, that’s so last year. Are you ready for the pilotless plane?

The first, almost entirely remote controlled passenger flight was successfully completed last month, proving that the idea of a drone plane has more potential uses than just blowing things up. The 800 kilometer (almost 500 miles) round trip from Warton in Lancashire, England to Inverness, Scotland wasn’t just a case of the traditional auto-pilot. Instead, the 19-seat plane was controlled by a user on the ground as soon as it was safely in the air, and continued to be remotely controlled all the way until landing.

For safety reasons, both take-off and landing were handled by a pilot onboard the plane. Once airborne, the pilot spent the flight monitoring progress and was assisted by a number of test engineers, who were thankfully not needed during the flight itself.

Although the flight took place last month, details have just been made public according to New Scientist. The ground-based controller was using “detect-and-avoid technology” to ensure that the plane didn’t make any unexpected collisions mid-flight. To foolproof the system, researchers tested the plane with the introduction of “fake objects,” or virtual obstructions in its path that would force the plane to navigate around such occurrences.

“Because we were in shared airspace, all the sense-and-avoid manoeuvers we tested used synthetic targets,” explained Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, the program director for ASTRAEA, the British research consortium responsible for the technology used in the test. “Any changes to the flight route were communicated to the ground-based pilot by air-traffic control, with the pilot then instructing the aircraft to amend its course accordingly.”

ASTRAEA – which stands for Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment (as well the name of the Zeus’ daughter in Greek mythology) – is a partnership of companies in the United Kingdom including BAE Systems, AOS, Cassidian, and Rolls-Royce to, in the words of the company’s website, “enable the routine use of UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) in all classes of airspace without the need for restrictive or specialised conditions of operation… through the coordinated development and demonstration of key technologies and operating procedures required to open up the airspace to UAS.”

The notion of a pilotless plane is an interesting one from many angles. Would it allow for longer flights, as there would be no pilot to get fatigued? Would it allow for cheaper flights, as there would be no pilot to pay wages toward? And, most importantly, would it result in more dangerous flights, as the potential for hacked drone technology or technological failure may become more likely?

Knowing that the test flight went well is good news, but it may take a while before consumer confidence is there to the extent that it could become a new flight standard.

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