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Artificial intelligence and machine learning have affected nearly every industry. Likewise, sensor technology has similarly advanced, and the Internet-of-Things is expands constantly. Soon, there will be driverless taxis, trucking lines, and buses in major cities across the country. So why not autonomous planes? Self-flying planes utilize these same technologies with the same level of precision. But when it comes to wrapping our heads around pilotless planes, we have some difficulty. There’s something about being 30,000 feet in the air without a human pilot that makes us nervous.

Whether it makes you anxious or not, autonomous planes are in the works. Not only are innovative startups exploring this space but so are major aviation corporations. Several developments have helped fuel interest in self-flying planes resulting in millions of dollars being invested. And several aviation test flights are demonstrating that pilotless planes are not just feasible but safe and economical. For many in the industry, this disruptive innovation in aviation is not simply a pipe dream but reality waiting to happen.

“The future of air transportation is autonomous. We believe the path to full autonomy begins with the air cargo market, and involves remote operators supervising fleets of unmanned aircraft.” – Marc Piette, CEO and founder of Xwing

A Path to Autonomous Planes

When you envision a pilotless plane, you might assume on-board instruments and sensors manage the entire flight. In nearly all cases, self-flying planes do not operate this way. Typically, an autonomous plane does utilize these technologies as part of the flight. But at the same time, centralized operators are monitoring operations from the ground. In the future, these operators will work in coordination with air traffic controllers to ensure safety and accuracy. This type of system is not only practical but one that many will accept as reasonable when embarking on self-flying planes.

A pilot's cap resting on the dashboard of a cockpit
Whether you’re ready or not, self-flying planes will soon be landing.

In essence, all the aviation companies developing autonomous planes plan to start in regional markets carrying cargo. For example, Xwing already has a modified Cessna 208B Grand Caravan being tested for regional transport. Likewise, Reliable Robotics, launched by engineers previously at Tesla and SpaceX, has similar self-flying planes that will be used by FedEx. By demonstrating that pilotless planes are safe and efficient in these markets, it will be easier to expand. Thus, by making autonomous cargo planes routine, self-flying planes for passenger travel will be more palatable.

“The disruption in design concepts is not going to come from Airbus or Boeing. I think it is going to come from smaller, innovative players.” Steven Udvar-Haz, Executive Chairman of Air Lease

Resource Pressures for Self-Flying Planes

Without question, self-flying planes are cool. But there is much more than this driving these new technologies. It’s no secret that the airline industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Prior to this, smaller regional flights were often subsidized by larger commercial flights. But with larger flights reduced in numbers and with fewer travelers, these smaller routes may be the first to go. That may be fine in some cases. But COVID has also triggered an ever-increasing demand for package deliveries that makes these regional flights more important. Autonomous planes offer a practical and smart solution to this logistics and fulfillment problem.

Advancing cargo demands and economics are not the only drivers encouraging the adoption of autonomous planes. Over the last 30 years, the number of qualified pilots has fallen by 30 percent despite rising needs. Naturally, self-flying planes would relieve these current pressures. Pilotless planes can also operate at 20-30 percent less cost, which is certainly attractive to a highly competitive industry. And many of the smaller regional autonomous planes can operate at zero emissions. This helps address environmental pressures aviation companies are facing. Each of these pressures add up making pilotless planes more and more appealing.

“Other companies were sidestepping or ignoring the issue. That strategy – of doing it in another country and bringing it to the US – is not going to work. You have to [develop autonomous planes] in the US and under FAA regulation.” – Robert Rose, CEO of Reliable Robotics

Paving the Regulatory Path Forward

Naturally, one of the major hurdles for self-flying planes involves regulatory oversight. This has been a struggle for the drone industry. So. It’s not surprising that this is a priority issue for autonomous aviation companies as well. In essence, the industry is utilizing three key strategies to facilitate regulatory approval of pilotless planes. The first involves extensive testing. The second strategy uses central operational oversight. And the third pursues approval for cargo transport using autonomous planes as a first step. Thus far, regulatory agencies like the FAA appear to like this plan.

All of the companies pursuing self-flying planes are spending millions on testing their innovations. Airbus has done a series of successful tests of its self-flying A350-1000XWB involving taxiing, takeoff and landing. Boeing and Britain-based Britten-Norman have done the same. And Xwing and Reliable Robotics are pursuing FAA approvals of their pilotless planes for regional cargo transport. In each case, these companies have demonstrated autonomous planes can function safely and efficiently. And regulatory agencies are progressively coming around to the idea.

The Final Challenge – Convincing the Consumer

It’s clear that the technology and pressures behind self-flying planes are tremendous. But will consumers buy-in to pilotless planes as well? In surveys, mixed responses have been seen. In one, nearly two-thirds said they would be unlikely to fly a pilotless plane. But in another, over 70 percent said they would be ready for autonomous planes in the future. The reason for these mixed messages is likely a lack of information. Many passengers may fear self-flying planes are not safe or cannot handle an emergency. But with central operational oversight, FAA approval, and a proven track record in the cargo industry, this will change. It’s therefore not if pilotless planes for passenger travel will become a reality, it’s when. And based on experts in the field, this reality will occur within the next decade.

 

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