Aerospace & Defense

First We Got Driverless Cars; Are Pilotless Airplanes Next?

Perhaps the major hurdle that autonomous (driverless) motor vehicles have to overcome is consumers’ lack of trust in the technology. How much higher, then, is the hurdle for a pilotless commercial aircraft?

Within the next two years, Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) has plans to test an autonomous civil aircraft to help determine whether an airplane with a reduced crew, a single pilot or no pilot at all can be operated at the same level of safety as current crewed airplanes.

According to a report in Aviation Week, the driver for the project is the potential inability of the current pilot training system to meet the need for some 1.5 million pilots over the next 20 years.

Mike Sinnett, Boeing’s vice-president for product development, said:

We come from an environment where the military has provided those stick-and-rudder pilots with a lot of reserve aeronautical experience. That is not as true today as it was 10 or 20 years ago, and it will become increasingly less true as time goes on. This does present a concern for us.

Adding to that concern is a “projected explosion in urban air mobility, personal air vehicles and new small, regional air transport.” Sinnett continued:

Will we really have all the pilots available to operate all these smaller aircraft? There has got to be a transition away from the requirement to have a skilled aviator operating the aircraft tactically to having a system that operates the vehicle autonomously. The question is, can we do that with the same level of safety and integrity as we have today? And that is a huge ‘if.’

Think of it this way: In 2016 the number of deaths on U.S. highways totaled about 40,000 while the global total of fatalities from seven airplane crashes was 271. Here’s how Sinnett sums up the connection between those two numbers:

The auto industry has a different bar to us. They have got to get below 40,000 fatalities. We have got to be as good as zero. It drives a very different way of thinking about the problem [of autonomous vehicles].

More details and information are available at Aviation Week.