For decades, all commercial airplanes have been flown by two pilots to ensure safety in the event of an emergency. However, thanks to improvements in Aviation technology, single pilot planes could soon become a reality.
Current European Aviation laws state that any plane carrying more than 19 passengers must have a minimum of two pilots in the cockpit. However, as autonomous technology becomes more intelligent and reliable, we could soon see robotic co-pilots helping to fly planes. As the Aviation industry faces a devastating shortage of pilots over the next decade, needing to recruit an additional 600,000 active pilots (currently there are only 200,000), single pilot planes could solve the Aviation skills shortage.
Autonomous technology in planes is nothing new – the concept of an ‘autopilot’ has been around for since the 1930s (autopilot systems became so ubiquitous that they were even parodied in the 1980 movie Airplane!). The basis of autopilot technology is surprisingly simple: merely maintaining course and speed.
Growing in complexity and sophistication since then, modern autopilot systems utilise a computer to communicate with various sensors along the body of the plane, including systems like the gyroscope, accelerometer and airspeed indicator.
However, truly autonomous Aviation technology working as a fully-functional co-pilot would be able to take in data, analyse that data, make decisions and alter the speed or flight path based on an algorithm. Both Airbus and Boeing are working on developing this technology that will allow for more sophisticated algorithms and smaller cockpits. Airlines could potentially save as much as $15 billion annually by switching to single pilot flights.
Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, the retired US Airways pilot who saved the lives of 155 people when he landed an A320 on New York's Hudson River after both engines died, has previously spoken out against moves towards single-pilot aircraft, claiming they ‘fly in the face of evidence and logic.’
Highly-trained and experienced human oversight over an autonomous system will likely always be the norm in every form of transport. However, the number of trained pilots on board commercial planes has fallen from around six in the 1950s to two or even just one today.
One of the biggest reasons we may never see completely autonomous passenger planes is that computers aren’t as effective as humans in adapting to sudden change. In the event of an emergency, a human pilot can take command, assess the situation and choose the best course of action. A computer has to gather data and analyse it, and will only ever decide on the most logical course of action, assuming it has wide enough parameters to understand what is happening. If there are too many variables, the computer simply can’t process them all in time.
Another problem for single pilot planes is that a fully autonomous flight system would be highly vulnerable to cyber-attacks. The ‘pilot’ would inevitably have to be connected to other external systems, and so would be vulnerable to infiltration and possible sabotage.
When acting as a co-pilot, autonomous flight systems can be invaluable to their human counterparts. Single pilot planes can keep the plane flying smoothly and update the pilot in real time about any potential problems that overwise might go unnoticed.