Self-flying planes and the future of air travel
Self-flying aircraft could be taking off sooner than you think, but not everyone is onboard with the idea. Join Air Charter Service and delve into the future of air travel, where self-flying planes could become the new norm.
Airbus and Boeing: The future of self-flying planes
In recent years, car manufacturers have invested heavily in autonomous driving startups; in particular self-driving cars. Now the aviation industry, fronted by plane manufacturers Boeing and Airbus, appears to be tracing the same path, meaning the once outlandish ideas of autonomous aircraft and single pilot operated airliners are fast becoming a reality.
According to Airbus’ Chief Technology Officer Paul Eremenko, single pilot planes will cut carrier costs by reducing crew needs. This is a huge step towards the ultimate goal of self-flying planes, which could save airlines more than $38 billion and slash passenger fares by 10%. The majority of savings would come from pilot salaries, which currently cost the aviation industry over $34 billion each year. Boeing is gearing up to test its first pilotless planes, which will explore the reliability and efficiency of using artificial intelligence (AI) to make decisions that currently fall to pilots – decisions that go beyond taking-off, cruising and landing, which many planes already execute autonomously, and remove the reliance on human pilots altogether.
Discussing Boeing’s motive for investing in AI, Vice President of Product Development Mike Sinnett claims 41,000 commercial jet airplanes will take to skies over the next 20 years, a record amount of aircraft which Boeing estimates will require 637,000 pilots. The rise of self-flying planes would reduce the need for pilots from sometimes at least five per plane to just two or three, as well as slashing the three pilots needed for freight charters to just one. Considering that only 200,000 pilots have been trained since the start of aviation, pilotless planes seem like the only plausible method to meet a growing demand.
The main differences between self-flying planes developed by Airbus and Boeing, aviation’s biggest rival manufacturers, are their sizes and the distances and flight paths they could take. Airbus’ Urban Air Mobility division will test its autonomous flying taxi, Vahana, later this year before rolling it out in 2021. This single-seated, tilt-wing, pilotless, multi-propeller, battery-powered flying taxi could be hailed as easily as a car taxi, offering an exclusive alternative for city-dwellers looking to avoid urban traffic jams. The compact taxi can travel around 50 miles before its batteries need recharging and will form part of a ride-hailing system – think Uber for planes. Boeing, on the other hand, aims to carry many passengers at a time aboard its largest airliners, rejecting the short-stop urban trips Airbus is pursuing. Boeing plans to test its self-flying technology in a cockpit simulator this year, before using it on a real plane in 2019.
Challenges facing self-flying planes
Turning the concept of self-flying planes into reality isn’t straightforward. Over decades of aerospace travel, two pilots have typically navigated the cockpit controls. After a Germanwings co-pilot crashed an A320 plane in the French Alps while the captain went to the toilet in March 2015, many airlines around the world also now stipulate that a minimum of two people must be in the cockpit at all times. This, combined with the fact that there is no certified single pilot or pilotless transport-category aircraft, means insurers and passengers could be apprehensive about the rise of self-flying planes – a claim supported by a CNBC report which revealed that only one in six passengers would feel comfortable flying in a fully automated plane.
However, Swiss banking giant UBS conducted a study that predicted self-flying planes could be more beneficial than manually controlled planes due to the threat of pilot error being removed (when a plane does crash, pilot error is typically cited as the cause). These kinds of issues have led to the creation and implementation of “refuse-to-crash” software, which could be built upon easily and transferred to pilotless planes. Since pilots only manually control the plane for three to six minutes of an average flight, it’s not hard to see why the world's biggest manufacturers believe their role is becoming redundant.
The future of air travel
It’s predicted that there will be a six-fold increase in flights by 2050, meaning the aviation industry urgently needs a solution to the shortage of pilots and radical changes to aircraft designs. Even self-flying planes still require a limited pilot presence in the cockpit to track shifts in wind and weather, check fuel consumption and take control during turbulence – jobs that autopilot can do, but humans do better. And as auto-piloted aircrafts cannot take off, cruise and land fully unmanned, it seems pilots won’t be removed from planes altogether – at least not for the foreseeable future.
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