In the 1950s, commercial flights required five people on board to fly the plane: two pilots as well as a flight engineer, a radio operator, and a navigator.
Technology helped pare the cockpit to the two-crew model that’s been in use since the late 1970s. But as flying becomes increasingly automated, planes may not need pilots on board at all.
Airbus and Boeing have both demonstrated fully autonomous flight, but this year could represent a sea change, with several manufacturers working alongside the FAA to certify autonomous aircraft that transfer the pilot from the cockpit to a control center on the ground—a move expected to streamline operations, trim costs, and make flight safer.
However, there’s a long way to go between the package-delivering drones you may soon see in your neighborhood and fully autonomous commercial flight involving a sci-fi picture with dozens of aircraft navigating crowded urban airspace, filled with passengers but no pilots.
“The biggest hurdle would be creating incredibly secure, unbreakable, un-hackable links to ground stations, with no risk,” Richard Aboulafia, managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory, tells Robb Report, citing additional difficulties such as insuring the planes, as well as getting buy-in from pilots, aerospace worker unions, and, most important of all, the flying public.
Implementation will likely be in stages; eVTOL (“electric vertical takeoff and landing” aircraft) is expected to arrive over the next few years, though nobody expects these electric air taxis to be fully autonomous for many years. These will be followed by fully autonomous small cargo aircraft and then, in the 2040s, commercial travel. Several start-ups have emerged in the race to develop the technology, especially in the cargo realm, where operators can serve rural areas more effectively.
Instead of building a plane from scratch, San Francisco-based start-up Xwing has been conducting tests using a converted Cessna Grand Caravan similar to the ones in FedEx’s fleet. Xwing’s Superpilot uncrewed air transportation system is already capable of gate-to-gate autonomous flight, according to the company.
However, the FAA requires that a safety pilot remain on board until the technology is certified. Meanwhile, a human controller on the ground interfaces with air-traffic control and operates the Cessna remotely.
“In the future, aviation will become more automated,” Xwing CEO Marc Piette tells Robb Report. “Once certified, we’ll be able to bring full autonomy into the national airspace, which will significantly improve safety across all phases of flight, reduce flight costs, and increase community connectivity.”
Experts say autopilot technology can often operate more effectively than a human, diagnosing problems and handling certain flying conditions using algorithms for emergency landings and other scenarios. However, pilots must still direct the plane’s systems.
Despite the myriad challenges, autonomous flight will arrive before autonomous vehicles hit the roads, says Robert Rose, CEO of Reliable Robotics. Rose, who worked at SpaceX and directly with Elon Musk on Tesla’s first version of Autopilot, says driving presents more technical challenges and a tougher regulatory environment than flying.
Like Xwing, Reliable Robotics is testing a retrofitted Cessna Grand Caravan for autonomous taxi, takeoff, cruise, landing, and braking, with a lone pilot on board. The FAA approved the company’s advanced navigation and autoflight system for testing last year. Both start-ups are working toward launching commercial operations by mid-decade.
“You don’t need to invent a new type of aircraft to solve the regulatory challenges related to autonomous operations,” Rose told CNBC.
Experts say fully autonomous commercial flights are about two decades on the horizon—short, regional flights are expected to begin flying themselves roughly a decade before that—but not everyone is excited, says Doug Gollan, founder of the industry buyer’s guide Private Jet Card Comparisons. “One comment I hear a lot from private jet flyers is they want two pilots in the cockpit, so it will be a long road to zero.”