10 Aug 2017

Planes Could be Pilotless by 2025

Cockpit with no pilots

Research conducted by investment bank UBS has found that technology may make planes able to fly by remote control within a decade. The bank predict that this could allow massive savings in pilot’s wages, thus passing on savings of over 10% to flyers.

UBS calculates that the industry could save £24 billion annually, which could make US flights 11% cheaper, and European flights 4% cheaper. The study also believes that computer controlled planes could be safer, removing human error.

Air passengers remain sceptical, however, with 54% of the 8,000 people surveyed by UBS stating that they would not fly in a pilotless plane, regardless of cost. But younger respondents, and those with a degree, responded far more favourably, which means that upcoming generations may be ready to embrace the technology.

UBS believe that the system will be phased in, with planes initially scaling down to one pilot present, and one operating remotely. Most of the building blocks for this technology are already available, with pilotless drones operated by the military and a lot of flight functions, such as take-off and landing, already controlled by computers. Boeing intend to test a pilotless plane in the coming year.

Some industry insiders have doubts about the technology. Steve Landells, BALPA flight safety specialist and former pilot, said: “We have concerns that in the excitement of this futuristic idea, some may be forgetting the reality of pilotless air travel.

“Automation in the cockpit is not a new thing – it already supports operations. However, every single day pilots have to intervene when the automatics don’t do what they’re supposed to.

“Computers can fail, and often do, and someone is still going to be needed to work that computer. Most of us own some sort of electronic device that can do amazing things – however, a human is still required to operate it.

“Our members tell us that pilot intervention will always be necessary, and because that requires direct contact with the situation, we don’t believe ‘pilotless flight’ will ever be a reality – what is more likely to happen is that the pilots are moved to the ground rather than being on board.

“We would question the safety of this, due to diminished responsibility and operational decision-making.”

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