Pilotless planes could be possible by 2025

Remote controlled aircraft are coming soon - but not everyone is on board

Ravneet Ahluwalia
Thursday 10 August 2017 10:18 BST
The basic technology to fly an unmanned plane already exists
The basic technology to fly an unmanned plane already exists (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Passenger planes could be flown without a pilot in the next decade, according to a new study.

The research was conducted by investment bank UBS, which found that new technology is being developed that would make remotely flying an aircraft feasible in the near future.

Pilotless planes could save airlines £27 billion and slash fares for passengers, who could see prices drop by over 10 per cent. The report said: “The average percentage of total cost and average benefit that could be passed onto passengers in price reduction for the US airlines is 11 per cent.” Savings on European flights would be less at an average of 4 per cent.

The biggest savings will come from reducing the cost of employing pilots. UBS estimated that pilots cost the industry £24 billion a year. The study predicts flights will be safer as the potential for pilot error will be removed.

Air passengers, however, seem nervous about travelling in a remote controlled plane. More than half of the 8,000 people surveyed by UBS (54 per cent) said they would refuse to fly in a plane with no pilot, even if the flight cost less.

Respondents between 18 and 34 and those who had a university degree were more willing to fly without a pilot. The report said: “This bodes well for the technology as the population ages.”

UBS suggested that initially the traditional two pilot set-up will be reduced to one on board pilot and one pilot on the ground. Commercial jets already use computers for many functions including take-off, cruise and landing.

The basic technology to fly planes without pilots already exists. Military drones are operated remotely and the study says this technology could be adapted to control commercial aircraft.

Boeing is set to test pilotless planes next year and the company's vice president of product development, Mike Sinnett, said: “The basic building blocks of the technology clearly are available.”

However, not everyone is so convinced by these technological developments. Steve Landells, BALPA flight safety specialist and former pilot, said: “We have concerns that in the excitement of this futuristic idea, some may be forgetting the reality of pilotless air travel.

“Automation in the cockpit is not a new thing – it already supports operations. However, every single day pilots have to intervene when the automatics don’t do what they’re supposed to.

“Computers can fail, and often do, and someone is still going to be needed to work that computer. Most of us own some sort of electronic device that can do amazing things – however, a human is still required to operate it.

“Our members tell us that pilot intervention will always be necessary, and because that requires direct contact with the situation, we don’t believe ‘pilotless flight’ will ever be a reality – what is more likely to happen is that the pilots are moved to the ground rather than being on board.

“We would question the safety of this, due to diminished responsibility and operational decision-making."

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