Fully Autonomous Passenger Planes Are Inching Closer To Takeoff

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun told Bloomberg TV that fully autonomous passenger planes are inching closer to takeoff, with it being only a matter of when not if.

Fully Autonomous Passenger Planes Are Inching Closer To Takeoff 1

Currently, setting up and managing an aircraft’s autopilot and other automated systems is typically required to pilot a high-tech passenger jet. However, we are not yet in a situation where computer systems can completely replace human pilots.

Driving the news: At an event this week celebrating the delivery of the final commercial 747, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun told Bloomberg TV, “Autonomy is going to come to all of the airplanes eventually.”

  • “The future of autonomy is real” for civil aviation, he added.
  • Boeing rival Airbus, meanwhile, has been testing a suite of advanced autonomous flight systems it’s calling DragonFly.

In-flight situations (such as a human pilot who is incapacitated) can be handled by DragonFly, which is also intended to reduce the workload of pilots while navigating complicated airports.

A California business by the name of Xwing is developing gate-to-gate autonomous cargo flights using modified Cessna Grand Caravans under the remote supervision of ground personnel.

  • Xwing recently landed a contract to work alongside the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), NASA, and others to research how to best integrate autonomous aircraft into complex airspace.
  • A similar startup, Natilus, just inked a deal to sell 20 remotely flown cargo planes to Ameriflight, which flies packages for UPS, FedEx, and others.

Nobody is speculating that human pilots would soon completely vanish from the flight decks of passenger airplanes, which is the intriguing part.

  • Instead, it is thought that a requirement requiring two pilots on many commercial aircraft could be relaxed as a result of growing automation.
  • But even that is being resisted by pilots, in part due to concerns about their safety and in part because of the possible threat to their livelihoods.
  • A pilot union, the Air Line Pilots Association, International, states on one of its information pages that “a minimum two-person flying crew is necessary to manage the workload on the flight deck and protect against the potential incapacitation of one pilot.”

Yes, but: Airlines adore anything that helps them save money, and paying one fewer pilot for each flight would achieve just that.

  • Others, however, believe that as autonomous aviation technology advances, a variety of new vocations will be needed to support them, as Joann has already mentioned.

Next steps: The development of Xwing and Natilus suggests that the next generation of autonomous systems will likely first demonstrate their viability in cargo operations before moving on to passenger planes.

Last year a Denver-based aeronautics company called Boom Supersonic developed a sustainable supersonic passenger plane that will use 100% sustainable aviation fuel.

The bottom line: It’s one thing to overcome the technological obstacles to autonomous flying. It is quite another to persuade people to fly in an airplane with one or no human pilots.

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One Response

  1. One should read “The Machine Stops” by E.M Forster (published in 1909) prior to boarding any “autonomous” airplane.

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