Future Aviation » Pilotless Airplanes

Commercial Airplanes without Pilots

Future cockpit has been a hilarious concept among the pilots these days. They laugh about it saying that a pilot will be responsible for scanning the instruments and a dog in that flight deck bites his hand if he touches anything.

        But the future aviation world is going to see pilotless commercial airplanes for sure. Even these days, it is not unusual for the commercial pilots to spend only a few minutes controlling the stick, irrespective of short time or long haul flights. Once the plane is airborne, they engage autopilot and let the machine take its course.

        Recently, a study was conducted by the researchers in the Humans and Autonomy department at Duke University. Based on that survey of the American pilots, it was found that the time spend by the pilots for touching the controls of Boeing and Airbus aircrafts are about 7minutes and half the flying time, respectively. It was revealed that the aircraft must always be on autopilot at the cruising altitude between 29,000 feet and 41,000 feet. The reason for this action is to safely reduce the vertical separation distance to 1000 feet between planes, paving way for more aircrafts to fly in the same airspace.

        NASA in conjunction with Rockwell Collins conducted a multimillion dollar study on ‘single-pilot operations’ concept. In this idea, only a captain is placed in the aircraft and a first officer or a super dispatcher takes care of the ground control system from the operations centre. This way, the first officer could assist up to 12 aircrafts at once, but the problem raised on a single aircraft could not be handled by the captain. During rare circumstances, the ground operator would also take over the controls and guide landing the plane at the nearest airport. As Boeing estimated the global requirement of 558,000 new commercial jet pilots during the next 20 years, this study was conducted in order to address the shortage concerns. Furthermore, it can cost as much as $400,000 a year to employ an A380 caption.

        Qantas Captain Richard de Crespigny landed an airbus A380 after an engine failed causing severe damage to the aircraft in 2010. This incident is the best example of having more than one pilot on board improves safety. Based on typical technology life-cycle curves, de Crespigny expects that it won’t be until 2060 that the pilot jobs start to become outdated.

        Gibbens, the aerospace engineering expert at the University of Sydney stated that when autonomous vehicles are involved, there is a greater chance of new aircraft management challenges. As long as the aircraft passed proper certification tests, others are less bothered about the idea of having fewer pilots. Bartsch, the former Qantas Safety Head stated that as long as he can drink good wine, listen to Pink Floyd and have enough leg room, he is happy to have this office in a vintage cellar.