With the rise of autonomous and pilotless flights, it would be only a matter of time before commercial airlines would also be using autonomous systems. Even today, most commercial flights practically fly themselves as the autopilot is on for almost the entirety of the flight.
The Need for Single-Pilot Commercial Planes
Aircraft manufacturers are gearing up for the coming of autonomous, pilotless planes. Airbus Chief Technology Officer Paul Eremenko said that Airbus is looking towards autonomous aircraft and tech to allow a single pilot to man commercial airplanes, resulting to lower operational costs for carriers. Airbus had the very first aircraft that only had two persons in the cockpit. Prior to the first Airbus, a pilot, a co-pilot and a flight engineer were all on board. The advanced avionics and fly-by-wire capabilities of the first Airbus planes did away with the engineer.
A Boeing study showed that the aviation industry will need 637,000 pilots in the next 20 years. That is a tall order as there are presently only 200,000 trained pilots. This shortage would hamper the growth of airlines and aircraft sales as well as an increase in travel costs.
According to Eremenko, the single-pilot scenario is a future option, with the same technologies leading to an autonomous pilotless operation. The trend is similar to the car market where the development of safer and faster rides have led to autonomous platforms. In the case of planes, the tools already exist, as planes already have autopilot and can practically land themselves automatically if the need arises.
Currently, the pilots fly airliners with the automation turned on. Before the plane gets to the air, the pilot has to conduct aircraft systems’ check. These include the initial systems’ test, and personally inspect and check the engines, tail planes, control surfaces, the aircraft structure for any possible defects, ice formations and others. While these are ongoing, the attendants are cleaning the cabin and preparing for the passengers’ boarding. Other procedures are also being done at the same time, including fuelling, de-icing, loading the passengers’ luggage, delivering the catering, etc.
The plane inspections are done as a pre-flight procedure the world over on all types of planes. It is the pilot’s responsibility to make sure that the plane is flight-worthy. One procedure to note is the revving up of the engines to a pre-determined revolutions per minute (RPM), making sure that all the systems are operating properly at that level.
The pilot duties continue while the passengers are boarding. The flight crew finalize the flight plan, double checks the weather conditions during the flight, and specifies taxiing on the runway.
In the US, FAA regulations state that at least two flight crew members must remain in the cockpit at all times. Even though the autopilot is engaged, both the pilot and co-pilot must remain at the controls to watch the computer screens ensuring that everything is running properly.
According to an article on the Telegraph, the autopilot typically does 90% of the flying. When rough flying conditions are encountered, especially in extreme turbulence, the flight crew is alerted before the autopilot disengages itself. Additionally, as per FAA regulations, takeoffs are always done manually. On the other hand, there are two conditions where the autopilot is engaged to land: due to very poor visibility; and during regular tests to the autopilot landing system to see if it is working properly. From pilot experience, about 99% of landings are done manually by the pilot.
Autonomous Commercial Flight
Major aircraft manufacturers including Airbus, Boeing and Sikorsky are in a race to develop artificial intelligence to allow planes to fly with only one pilot, or with no pilot at all. The effort to do so would be almost the same. However, the certifications for autonomous flight would be more rigid than any in existence. People are apprehensive about flying commercially without a pilot. It is easier to accept a driverless car or bus, but it is a different case with flying vehicles like air taxis. One other concern is that there is no transport category aircraft certified for a single pilot or autonomous flight. Without a certification, it is not clear whether insurers, carriers and passengers would allow it, or for regulators to permit it. A certification requires a criterion of technical airworthiness and a minimum set of standards to pass.
On another front, Airbus is also aiming for the autonomous air taxi business and has created its own Urban Air Mobility division to explore new technology for on-demand pilotless helicopter rides and delivery drones. Airbus is already on the way to adapting to industry trends with hopes of leading the way in autonomous commercial flight.