Boeing recently announced that it plans to test pilotless planes in 2018. This will fill in its product line together with its best-selling narrow-bodied 737 and its larger 787 Dreamliner. The American multinational declared that it aims to bring the new jet to customers around 2025.

Other companies like Airbus are also in the process of assessing how to penetrate the unmanned aircraft market in the near future. The European company has recently announced successful test flights of their VSR700 OPV helicopter and of a new type of unmanned, autonomous jet propelled aircraft (SAGITTA project), which flew by itself for around seven minutes over a test site in Overberg, South Africa. The test flight marked the completion of the first phase of the project, which has been composed of a wide array of ground tests before moving on to actual flight. Although the prototype is not meant for sale, it is being used by Airbus as a demonstrator for future unmanned projects.

However, trust levels among citizens are still low: a survey by financial services firm UBS found that 54% of the 8,000 people questioned would unlikely board a pilotless flight. Only 17% of those questioned said they would board such a plane, among which young people are more willing to give them a try.

Another big debating point around the introduction of the planes is safety. In this regard, the UBS report did suggest that pilotless planes would make flying even more secure. Indeed, the basic technology to fly planes without pilots already exists if one thinks about commercial and military drones operated remotely with automation in the cockpit already supporting specific in-flight operations. A cyber secure environment would also be critical for the market uptake of these unmanned planes, particularly considering the plane’s electronic communication systems. Céline Fornaro from UBS noted a risk-based timeline for pilotless operations, moving from less complex, small passenger capacity aircraft and cargo-only missions out to large commercial transport further into the future.

The study by UBS adds that airlines could save more than $26bn in training and pilot costs by introducing pilotless aircrafts and added that such a move would save the business jet industry up to $3bn and civil helicopters about $2.1bn. More than $3bn would also be saved in insurance premiums and there would be chances of extra revenues from increased numbers of cargo and commercial flights.

For pilotless planes to be deployed, the safety issue should be addressed through a specific focus on this matter by the industry. And the biggest challenge is likely to be outside the normal approval framework: as well as the regulatory certification of pilotless operations, the psychological hurdle will also need to be overcome in order to win the public’s trust, an exercise which will probably take some time.

The topic of the pilotless planes follows the trail of the current driverless car context at global level. The industry is already moving closer to a world of where remotely controlled planes could potentially be the next automated mode of long-haul transport.

By Logos Public Affairs

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