Aviation Blogger, Grayson Ottaway, sizes up the prospects of aircraft with pilot-less cockpits.
(Image courtesy of Creative Commons Flickr user Robert Schultz.) I was born two weeks late and have remained so ever since. I was never a fan of using a diary and actually got an electronic one as soon as they came out about 22 years ago. It was a Casio DC-7800 and I’ve still got it. It had 32Kb of memory – or 0.000030518% of the memory of my beloved Samsung phone has today. That’s only twenty years of difference, for two devices about the same size! Everything. and I mean everything, in my life is loaded on to the Google calendar. Technology powers my life.
The day is coming, and probably not that horribly far away, when pilots won’t actually be needed on a plane, like they have been or are today. Standard procedure for today’s airlines is once they are through the first 200 feet after take-off, they activate the autopilot. They don’t actually have to turn it off for landing either, as modern airlines can ‘auto-land’. I’ll pause for a bit and let you take that paragraph in.
Yes, autopilots do most of the flying on today’s modern airliners. Even on short domestic flights, the button is pressed to activate ‘George’ – the colloquial reference for George De Beeson, the man who invented the first “practical” autopilot back in 1931.
It’s done because for airliners fitted with a flight management computer, autopilot will ensure the aircraft flies superbly efficiently and economically. A pilot will try his/her best, but they can’t match it. Air New Zealand’s 50 seat Bombardier Q300’s have FMC’s, as does everything larger in its fleet.
I have a number of great friends who are airline pilots and I’ve made that bold statement to them. They quietly agree. The time is coming when pilots won’t be needed to anywhere near the degree they are, now.
As an example, look at what Airbus patented last year. An airliner that is flown like a drone, though the pilots are still on the plane, but are looking at a digitally displayed real-time image rather than through traditional cockpit windows. The need for all the room they need, and all those windows, means the pointy bit at the front of the cigar is not really the best shape. After all, the more aerodynamic a plane is, the less drag is created, and the less fuel is burned which of course saves a lot of money for the airlines.
Will crew be down the back?
As a result the shape of tomorrow’s airliner may well be very different by not having the crew seated up front, but somewhere else on the plane - even right down the back. Technology means that tomorrow’s pilots will still see things like they were up front, but won’t actually be sitting there. Their vision out the front windows will actually be on a panoramic screen, and fed from live HD cameras mounted on the nose.
There is talk too of technology straight from the Starship Enterprise too! The flight crew will simply issue verbal commands to the plane’s computers. "Take off!”, “Ascend to 37,000 feet”, “Change heading to two seven zero.” Crew would only be needed for the critical phases of take off and landing, and simply rated to say the right words and of course, know what to do when/if things go a touch wrong!
The next step from having the crew on-board is to have them sitting on the ground somewhere. There could be a roster of crew members for a 12 hour flight across the Pacific, the crew that were ‘monitoring’ the take off phase would not be the same, as those you who monitor landing.
Airlines will surely go for it as it will save heaps, but will the traveling public go for it? If it meant big savings on air-fares I believe they totally would!
Today’s airliners already fly pre-determined departures, flight routes, arrivals - even taxiing on the ground is part of the plan. And before you come back with “but it’s a plane going fast in the sky with lots of people on it”, realise that there are places in the world where you already “fly” on bullet trains at airliner speeds with hundreds of others with only one fellow up front, and he’s not really doing anything other keeping a watch on proceedings. And that’s before you start to factor in driver-less cars which are on the horizon.
And don’t laugh off pilot-less airliners either; look at what the US military is doing with large UAV’s in war-zones in the Northern Hemisphere. They fly them from under the ‘magic-mountain’ in the US! And they’ve already flown airliners remotely.
And if you’re wondering about the interaction between a ‘drone airliner’ and air traffic control, researchers from Australia’s RMIT University have developed a talking drone that can converse with air traffic controllers! Take a look at this video clip.
Planes with much more automation are definitely coming. Maybe not for all airliners, but definitely for the long-haulers. Whether or not it goes the whole hog to pilot-less planes is doubtful, but you never know. It will rest on how comfy the travelling public is sitting on a plane with a part-time pilot who is there for the really important phases of flight or for emergency situations- but for the rest of the time may well be helping serve you a meal!
By FTLOT Aviation Blogger, Grayson Ottaway.