Autonomous technology is rapidly influencing intelligence, efficiency and applications. Originally used in factories on assembly lines for cars and other machinery, autonomous technology has improved to the point where cars can drive themselves. But could the new technology ever be used to create self-flying planes?
And if it could, should we allow planes to fly themselves – and carry human passengers?
Given that the Aviation industry faces a mass shortage of pilots, predicted to worsen over the coming years, industry giants Boeing and Airbus are unsurprisingly already working on autonomous Aviation technology.
Air travel is the safest form of transport: globally, 2017 saw zero plane crashes, and in the US between 2009-2018 there were no fatalities. However, although this level of safety is often attributed to pilot skill, others claim that human fallibility is the single biggest risk on a plane.
Pilotless planes could also provide much-needed savings throughout the Aviation skills shortage. According to some reports, the industry could save $35 billion a year by switching to autonomous Aviation technology.
Passenger safety is paramount in the Aviation industry. However, even if autonomous Aviation technology were perfected tomorrow, many of the general public may worry about boarding a plane with no human pilot – around 63% of respondents in a recent survey were opposed to flying in a pilotless aircraft. The concept of trusting your life to a faceless machine is one that doesn’t currently sit well with the average passenger, with recent cyber attacks against the Aviation industry being levelled as a criticism of entire concept of autonomous planes.
Pilots are fighting any legislation or airline policies attempting to move to a single pilot or even pilotless system. Many pilots claim that any fewer than two pilots in a cockpit is courting disaster, leaving the plane vulnerable to technical failure or hijacking. Pilots can react to unexpected problems far faster than any machine, which would need to analyse the best move to make. Years of experience and intuitive understanding means pilots can land planes under seemingly impossible circumstances.
In theory, an autonomous plane would work similarly to an autonomous car. Sensors on the plane would provide it with a degree of ‘awareness’, meaning it can place itself in space in relation to other objects. Algorithms would dictate how it should behave in set scenarios, and thanks to artificial intelligence the system would be able to learn and adapt given more data acquired from flights. In theory, this could lead to planes becoming smarter and safer with every flight.
But there’s more to the smooth running of a plane than just the flight controls. The plane must also communicate with other planes in the sky and on the runway. The entire transportation network is a complex system, with many moving parts. An autonomous plane would have to seamlessly sync up with the rest of the network to avoid logistical problems or delays.
However, there are some limitations to consider. Machines are only programmed to deal with a certain number of scenarios, and autonomous planes would require time to run simulations of analysis before making any choice that they hadn’t made before.
In the event of an emergency, where time would be of the essence, an autonomous plane may not have all the data necessary to make the right choice in time. In the event of a hijacking, the pilotless plane may not even technically be aware of hostile forces onboard and would have no means of fixing any sabotage.
We won’t likely see autonomous planes for years, if ever. If such a system were ever introduced, it would require leading Aviation innovation and intense scrutiny to ensure the safety of the industry and its workers and passengers.