Fully-automated, pilotless planes are in the pipeline | Tech Talk

The initial objective is to use the autonomous planes in dull, dirty or dangerous flights.
The initial objective is to use the autonomous planes in dull, dirty or dangerous flights.

I love the scene in Flying High just after Captain Oveur collapses from food poisoning and Elaine flips the switch for "automatic pilot". A large inflatable pilot named "Otto" inflates and takes the controls of the plane.

For a comedy that ranks as one of the greatest of all time, this is a funny scene.

In the real world as passengers on a plane, we really have no idea of what happens up in the cockpit. For all we know, there might be a blow-up doll at the controls!

Assume for the moment that we have our two pilots that control the plane for take-off and landing and the plane's autopilot takes care of most of the rest.

As a society, we generally seem pretty comfortable with this. We have had some time to become accustomed to this arrangement, probably because autopilots have been around for quite some time.

The first autopilot was developed by Sperry Corporation in 1912, just nine years after the Wright brothers started flying.

More lifestyle:

As commercial air travel boomed after the war, autopilot systems kept developing.

In the 1950s, commercial planes typically had five crew members in the cockpit. The pilots were joined by a navigator, a radio operator and a flight engineer.

Two decades later and automation had developed to the point where five crew members were now just two.

I don't remember a huge uproar about safety concerns with automation replacing the work of three people in the cabin.

My question is this. How will people feel when the last two humans in the cockpit are replaced by automation?

We feel confident that we will arrive at the correct location without a human navigator in the cockpit, but do we feel confident the plane will take off and land without a pilot?

A company in the US is currently converting a fleet of 55 King Air planes to fly autonomously. Many Australians may be familiar with the King Air as the Royal Flying Doctor Service. It has 40 in its fleet - but with pilots.

The initial objective is to use the autonomous planes in dull, dirty or dangerous flights. No passengers on board at this stage. For example, planes are used to help fight fires. It is both dangerous and dirty work - but essential in reducing the spread of a bushfire.

Planes without passengers are also proposed for agricultural work and data collection and freight. The amount of freight carried by planes has increased by 9 per cent over a two-year period with no sign of diminishing.

We have seen other examples across the world of remote-piloted planes. Planes that are flown from ground operations by pilots. We are not talking about that option here.

We are talking about a fully autonomous aircraft that is instructed to fly from point A to point B and subsequently does as instructed. Remote monitoring will certainly be available in the case of an emergency but, apart from that, no human will be involved.

There are still many hurdles to overcome before you or I will be boarding an autonomous passenger flight with several hundred fellow travellers. Politics may interfere, unions may be worried about job losses or insurance companies may have a say in it.

The biggest hurdle though will be comfort levels of the travelling public. Shows like Air Crash Investigation have shown that autopilot features are fine - until they aren't - and that can hurt confidence.

Air France Flight 447 and the Boeing 737 Max saga show that autopilots are not flawless.

Tell me if you would board an autonomous plane at ask@techtalk.digital.

  • Mathew Dickerson is a technologist, futurist and tech start-up founder.
This story Fully-automated, pilotless planes are in the pipeline first appeared on The Canberra Times.