Self-flying planes? Eh! Aircraft manufacturers are working to bring self-flying planes to commercial aviation, and it may be sooner than we think.
Apparently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is preparing for it, and airlines are eager for it, Forbes reported.
As for airline pilots, they’re bracing for it and its impacts on the future of employment.
In January, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun spoke on the secret, saying, “I think the future of autonomy is real for civil,” he told Bloomberg TV. “It’s going to take time. Everyone’s got to build confidence. We need a certification process that we all have faith and believe in.”
It’s been a thing, just not when it comes to commercial aviation. The outlet reported that the U.S. military has been flying autonomous planes for decades, but only in segregated airspace. As we progress in technology, many in the field believe self-flying planes could carry passengers by the end of this decade and maybe another decade before larger planes do the same.
“It’s all about money,” says Dennis Tajer, a pilot for 35 years and Allied Pilots Association’s spokesman, representing 15,000 American Airlines pilots. “Manufacturers are looking for the next innovative technology to deploy so that they can sell it and make money, and airlines are looking at how they can do this more cheaply.”
Six years ago, Swiss bank UBS estimated that autonomous planes could save the air transportation industry more than $35 billion annually. However, a 2017 global survey found that most people would be unwilling to fly in a plane without a pilot, even if the airfare were cheaper.
Xwing, a northern California startup, has already introduced autonomous aircraft into the aviation field with small cargo planes. “We took an existing Cessna airframe,” says Xwing CEO Marc Piette, “which is the most widely used express cargo airframe, and we’ve been modifying that vehicle to convert it to a remotely-supervised vehicle. We think the cargo market is the best first place to deploy this. And we’ve been very deliberate.”
The company is already running automated test missions. A flight plan is submitted, just as if there were a human pilot, and the flight’s parameters are pre-programmed before takeoff. “It’s really a one-click thing,” Piette says. “You engage the system, and it runs its mission.”
Until the technology is certified by the FAA, there will need to be a safety pilot on board. This allows Xwing to fly without going through regulatory hoops. “The safety pilot can disconnect a system and revert the aircraft to manual flying, but otherwise doesn’t do anything but monitor the system. It’s a very boring job,” Piette explains.