Are You Ready to Fly on a Plane With No Pilot?

Google may be looking beyond driverless cars to pilotless commercial planes. Sounds scary, but it could be more reliable, some argue.

Are You Ready to Fly on a Plane With No Pilot? Photo (cc) by Matt Biddulph

Imagine flying the skies with an empty cockpit.

Shudder.

According to Bloomberg, the head of Google’s experimental cargo-drone program wants to see pilotless commercial airplanes.

“Let’s take unmanned all the way,” Dave Vos said during a recent panel discussion at the annual conference of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “That’s a fantastic future to aim for.”

Vos maintains that flying would be safer if planes weren’t designed around the need for humans to control them. Bloomberg said:

Transitioning airliners to robotic supervision would be a leap beyond Google’s research into fields such as self-driving cars. While pilots already rely on computerized control systems and navigation aids, planes move in three dimensions, not just two as do motor vehicles. That adds complexity — and risk — to any technology that would replace humans in the cockpit.

The discussion about pilotless planes began heating up after the intentional crashing of Germanwings Flight 9525, The Associated Press reports. “At the very least, some have suggested allowing authorities on the ground to take control of a plane if there is a rogue pilot in the cockpit,” the AP said.

Although remotely piloted drones are already frequent fliers and driverless cars are hitting the streets, pilotless passenger planes seems downright scary.

“The real reason a person wants another human in the cockpit is because they want to believe there’s somebody in the front who shares their own fate and thus if anything goes wrong, they will do everything they can to save their own lives,” Mary Cummings, a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot who is now a Duke University professor studying autonomous flight, told the AP.

But from a business standpoint, pilotless commercial planes would lead to huge cost savings. Because of the potential savings for airlines – in pilot training, salaries, retirement costs and travel expenses – Cummings said she predicts a shift to pilotless planes in the next 10 or 15 years.

According to the AP, technology has already enabled pilots to become more removed from their planes. Many aircraft maneuvers are automated, with a computer controlling a number of movements.

“Anything you can control with knobs or buttons, without getting out of your seat, can be done equally well — or even better — on the ground,” said Todd Humphreys, a University of Texas professor of aerospace engineering.

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