24Hr emergency line +44 (0)20 8476 4099
Join Balpa

What does the future hold for pilots?

by Captain Tim Pottage BALPA NEC

The fact that there is going to be ever-increasing automation in aviation is not really in doubt, but how far will it go, and how fast will it come? There are predictions that the new wave of automation in general will do so 10 times faster, and its effects reach 300 times further than the industrial revolution before. Such predictions sounds similar to the way that home computer systems and smart phones entered the market; slowly at first and then, once the initial hurdles were overcome, rapidly and increasingly becoming a feature of everyday life. If something is technically possible, offers convenience or a better service, and there is a profit to be had, chances are it will happen.  

Last week in the press, we heard more of the plans for Amazon to start Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) ops in the UK, and with the sort of money and determination that Mr Bezos brings to it, there is every chance it will succeed, look at spaceX for another example. Let’s assume for a moment that it takes another two years to sort out the teething problems and delivery drone operations to begin. Then, give it another two years to become fairly common place. Alongside this will be the spread of automated road transport – drone taxis are already at an advanced stage of development, and military drones are increasingly fighting our wars. Against this background, I believe the public will start to become accustomed to, and accepting of, vehicles being automatically and safely controlled in daily life.  

Shift on another five years – many of the second and third generation of commercial jets are being put out to pasture, and aircraft still on the drawing board today will be designed for a 30 year service life. Some of the public’s concerns regarding automation have been calmed, and the work already done on single pilot and single pilot in the cruise ops begins to look more promising. Possible, cheaper, faster, – it is probably going to happen. In practice, it could mean that pilots will alternate between actual flying and ‘flying’ at a desk whilst being the remote monitoring pilot for several flights at a time.  

Okay, so single pilot could well be on its way. What about pilotless fully automatic passenger aircraft? Well maybe, but if designers need to go to the trouble of putting in pressurisation amongst other things for the passengers, then some of the possible advantages of taking the pilots out of the cockpit can’t be realised. Additionally, having a human pilot in chain is a useful firebreak, both in terms of automation failures, and corporate liability (“sorry about the accident but it was pilot error”), so I think that the move to pilotless aircraft is still a long way off.

Whether all this is 10 years or 20 years away, I think its effects will ripple well ahead of it. Helicopters are already being replaced by drones, and terms and conditions for those still flying are under significant downward pressure.

Interesting times ahead.