While the jury is out whether we will ever have fully autonomous planes with no pilots present, the technology to make this happen does exist, and is being implemented in new models and fleets. While most planes today fly with two pilots on hand, many airlines are now looking to move to single pilot planes to save money, utilising autonomous technology to pick up the slack.
Allegedly the aviation industry could save $30 billion by eliminating the need for pilots, which might explain why there is a drastic shortage of pilots as the very industry they work in makes moves against them.
Beyond the obvious lack of pilots however, autonomous technology does hold the potential to change how flights operate, making them safer and more efficient.
The technology powering autonomous planes is already at work in cars on the road today, adapting it for the skies will take time and vast amounts of data. Luckily, there are millions of flights to generate data which can be fed into AI programs.
Commercial aviation is growing, and set to double over the next 15 years. This will be instrumental in helping AI systems understand how planes work, how flights are supposed to run, and what to do when things don’t go to plan.
Algorithms only make decisions based on previous experience, so essentially the more data it has, the smarter it is.
One obvious advantage of autonomous planes is that during long haul flights the plane will simply fly itself, eliminating any risk of human error due to tiredness. Human error is one of the most dangerous and unpredictable elements of flying, and removing it arguably could make flights significantly safer.
In the event of any kind of disruption, the plane’s sensor systems could diagnose problems and find solutions much faster than a human could. Minute calibrations can be made, to fully optimise any remaining power, fuel, or flight path. This would only be possible through the power of an AI system.
Currently there are usually two pilots on a plane, to ensure there is always someone in the cockpit with control over the flight. The second pilot is there to provide support, check systems, or take over in the event of an emergency.
Autonomous technology could in theory mean this number drops to just one pilot, with an AI co-pilot. This is the middle ground which many are advocating for, having the best of both worlds. A highly advanced AI to check systems, weather patterns, and monitor communications would leave the pilot free to focus on flying the plane.
However without any pilots at all, the fate of the plane and all its passengers depends solely on the AI system. Many have pointed out the flaws in AI logic when confronted with something unexpected, when its algorithms cannot comprehend what is happening to it, or cannot decide on a course of action as a response to an unclear situation.
The lack of human oversight means the plane would also be at risk of cyber-attack. While planes could still be at risk of a hack with pilots, there would still be someone with experience able to mitigate some of the damage. Without this, the plane would be at the mercy of the cyber-criminal, who could potentially redirect it, or worse.
Safeguards are of course the main priority for any AI system, and autonomous planes will be no exception. Being an inherently international vehicle, it’s likely that autonomous planes will have the full support of any nations it finds itself in or over, providing assistance. As autonomous technology is developed, we’ll see advances in cyber security, and fail-safes implemented in more computer systems to effectively counter cyber-attacks.
Autonomous technology is certainly going to be introduced into planes over the coming decades, but the degree to which it will fly those planes is yet to be seen.