News Stories

Your Next Flight May be Piloted From the Ground

As this is posted, Iran claims to have shot down a drone that was spying on their nuclear facilities. When we finally leave Iraq, will we be able to put some of the technology we developed for that war to CIVILIAN use in the future?

The military now trains more people to control unmanned aerial vehicles than pilots, yet drones (UAVs) haven't yet taken over even the humblest niches in commercial aviation. The reason is partly technical--UAVs can't yet sense and avoid other aircraft, or work easily with air controllers--but mainly psychological: Nervous passengers just aren't prepared to step inside an aircraft with an empty cockpit.

UAVs are improving all the time. They can now handle ever more demanding tasks over the battlefield, such as taking off and landing on aircraft carriers, carrying cargo to isolated troops, and even evacuating wounded soldiers. Proponents of commercial UAVs argue that eventually such emergency aid will begin to save lives in the civilian sector-- by finding shipwrecked people and pulling them from the water--at which point the public will finally embrace pilotlessness.

And cockpit automation continues to advance, reducing the task load on pilots. Automation should one day put an end to the job of co-pilot, as it did long ago to the jobs of flight engineer, communications officer, and navigator. Some critics say that pilots already depend so heavily on software that their basic skills are atrophying, and thus their one remaining role--to take charge of the plane if the software should fail--is coming under a cloud.

The likely route to commercially successful pilotless flight will begin with freight carriage over water, then over farmland, followed by emergency evacuations of people and then limited passenger flights in sparsely populated, poorly served areas. When a generation of consumers has grown up with such services, the final step to routine unmanned airliner flight will not seem too drastic to contemplate.

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