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News | Are You Ready to Fly Without a Human Pilot?

Mohamed Hakim

On a recent visit to the Southwest Airlines headquarters in Dallas, I got to fly a Boeing 737. Or, a

Honestly, it was easier than I expected.

My instructor at the airline’s new Leadership Education and Aircrew Development Center dropped a see-through panel down between my face and the windshield, and explained how to read the indicators. Right in front of my eyes there was a small green circle and a slightly larger green circle. All I had to do to get on the ground safely, he said, was keep the smaller circle inside the larger one by adjusting the airplane’s pitch.

Autopilot features vary by aircraft type and airline, with some planes even able to land themselves under certain conditions. Southwest uses an autopilot technology that assists pilots during every part of the flight, including descent, but I experienced firsthand how the airline’s pilots are ultimately responsible for landing their planes safely.

I kept the plane as level as I could as computer-generated facsimiles of low-rise Queens buildings and the Grand Central Parkway slipped quickly beneath me. Controls around me adjusted themselves to keep us moving at the right speed, and with a big bump I made it onto the runway. The simulator, again by itself, came to a stop near Terminal B.

I stepped out of the simulation with a renewed appreciation for the sophistication of autopilot, but also for the human pilots who make sure planes operate safely.

With airline industry watchers in a seemingly perpetual state of worry about a pilot shortage, some think automation could obviate the need for those human pilots altogether. But, most experts say, the technology, the industry and the passengers are not quite ready for fully autonomous flying.

“From what I see, could it happen in the distant future? I think it probably could. Will it happen in the near future? I don’t think so,” said Michael Wiggins, the chairman of the aeronautical science department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “Right now, any progress toward that area should be done very slowly, very measured and only after a bunch of research with results that suggest we should do that.”

For almost as long as planes have been in the sky, aviators and manufacturers have worked to make flying a simple experience for pilots and a smooth one for passengers.

“Automated flight controls go back into the 1920s, and through World War II they had rudimentary autopilots,” Dr. Wiggins said. “The idea was that the automation would relieve the pilots of very routine flying and monitoring tasks and would allow them to focus on situational awareness and other monitoring duties they have to take care of.”
As those autopilot features grew more sophisticated through the 20th century, Dr. Wiggins said, flying also grew safer because the systems were able to detect problems more quickly and effectively than human pilots could. A person in the cockpit might not see a single needle move on a single gauge, but a computer can detect that kind of warning sign and send out a more noticeable alert.

Sweeping technology improvements over the last 50 to 60 years have made flying safer than ever before. The large planes that once flew the longest flights in the world required three or even four people on duty in the cockpit simultaneously. Now, updated versions of those same aircraft or newer, more efficient airframes that replaced them can be managed by two pilots just as effectively.

Capt. Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said automation had largely been a boon to his union’s members. “At a very high level, it really has done a lot of amazing things for us and it has made us incredibly safe, and that’s why we embrace it so much.”

But, he said, he thinks planes are more or less as automated as they are likely to get.

“We will see advancements, further advancements in automation, but they will be on the margins instead of earthshaking,” he said. “And I say that because if you look at the most modern aircraft now, they have fully automated landing capability for very low visibility” and other automated controls. The next most likely developments in automation, he said, will revolve more around predicting and detecting maintenance-related issues.

But John Schmidt, the global managing director for the aerospace and defense practice at Accenture, said there was more to automation in aviation than that.

“Every time a 787 takes a flight it generates a terabyte of data,” he said. “We use a fraction of that data today.” The engines alone track data on 5,000 parameters. Companies are starting to use artificial-intelligence software to better interpret that data, which leads to better maintenance practices and more efficient equipment usage.

Mr. Schmidt also said he was more bullish about the future of automated flight controls.

“The technology to be able to do all the things that a pilot does on an unmanned aerial vehicle today exists,” he said. “Is that going to happen in the next year? No. Is that going to happen sooner than we think? Yes.”

Regulators are already taking steps toward downsizing the role of humans on the flight deck. Congress introduced an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that would provide funding to study single-pilot operations for cargo planes, a move that the Air Line Pilots Association opposed. Captain Canoll said that a single-pilot aircraft must be safe to fly without anyone at the controls in case the pilot takes a bathroom break or becomes incapacitated.

“The security of a sole human in the cockpit is not something we’ve accepted, nor should we accept in the long term,” he said, adding that the two-pilot system had made aviation extremely safe while keeping operations efficient.

Meanwhile, major aircraft manufacturers like Airbus and Boeing are pushing the technological boundaries.

“As technology continues to improve, automation becomes more reliable and can manage more tasks and more sophisticated ones. In parallel, the role of the pilot is evolving,” Airbus said in an email statement. “The pilotless aircraft is not only a matter of technical feasibility, but also social acceptability (not only the industry, but also the traveling public).”
Boeing seems even more ready to embrace fully autonomous flight. In an email, Paul Bergman, a spokesman for the company, said it was more actively investigating the potential for unmanned commercial flight.

“The safe integration of unmanned aerial systems into national airspace is vital to unlocking their full potential,” he said. “Boeing’s systematic, risk-based approach to integration − that incorporates lessons learned from more than a century of experience in manned flight − can protect the safety and security of our current airspace while opening up new opportunities for unmanned systems.”

The company is also exploring ways to further enhance current autopilot features.

“This year Boeing will explore the fundamentals of automating the manual airplane tasks that remain with the goal of enhancing safety and reducing pilot workload,” Mr. Bergman said.

Both Boeing and Airbus will exhibit new technologies at the Farnborough Airshow in England, which takes place every other year. The show, which opens Monday and will run through Sunday, provides a chance for companies across the aerospace industry to show their latest wares to prospective clients, and exhibitors often use the opportunity to announce major developments or new products.

But it is unlikely that a fully autonomous commercial plane will make an appearance this year. Part of the challenge in bringing that kind of technology to fruition, said Dr. Wiggins, is that self-piloting airplanes would have to do more than just fly. They would also have to interact with all the complex parts of the air transportation network.

“I think we’re farther away from it than some people would like, and I think we’re probably closer to it than some other people would like,” he said. “Should we continue researching this? I think so. Should we jump into it headlong without understanding the full ramifications of it? I think not.”