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The reality of pilotless planes

by Captain Tim Pottage BALPA NEC

Last month saw the latest claims that getting rid of pilots could bring “material economic benefits” to airlines and improve safety. UBS the swiss bank claimed (in an apparently well-researched report) that airlines could save more than $35bn a year by introducing pilotless planes. But in the same breath the bank warned that passengers might not be quite so keen on the idea. Of a survey of 8,000 people only 17% said they would be happy to fly on a pilotless plane.

Reading the many articles was for me a reinforcement of the fact that we are still a long way from seeing all our pilots hanging up their hats for good!

So why do planes need pilots?

There can be no denying that we live in an increasingly technological world and many functions are now being taken over by computers. Over the last 40 years the number of people on the flight deck has reduced from five to two. Gone are the radio operators, the navigators and the flight engineers. And we know aircraft manufacturers are looking in to technology that will simplify flight decks and could eventually lead to pilotless planes. In its report UBS predicted that the first step towards pilotless planes will be to reduce the number of pilots in the cockpit to just one, with a remote pilot on the ground. This cost saving would be significant and could well answer public concerns over flying pilotless aircraft.

But to this day the technology still isn’t available or reliable enough for a passenger plane to fly itself with the same level of safety, particularly in an unforeseen emergency, currently required by manned aviation. Pilots work in a dynamic environment where they must anticipate changes in weather and have an understanding of external threats ranging from birds to paragliders to drones. Pilots must also take in to account passenger and crew welfare, non-standard passenger behaviour, aircraft serviceability, automation glitches, surface conditions, holes in runways, icing, the vagaries of ATC requirements and much more.

Pilots are consistently applying judgment that helps keep our skies safe. Computers can fail, and often do. It’s a regular occurrence for pilots to intervene when the automatics don’t do what they’re supposed to. Computers are still very poor at multi-criteria dynamic decision making and solution finding. Essentially, well trained pilots are exceptionally good at prioritising, finding solutions to and dealing with unforeseen developments; computers are not.


Of course, the idea of a remote pilot on the ground is not the realm of fantasy. Military drones are already in operation and there are numerous companies hoping to build on and exploit this technology. But the leap to make this reality is still a big and costly one. The technology isn’t reliable yet. Only this month we’ve heard reports of two multi-million pound British Army drones crashing after taking off from a base in mid Wales. These technical glitches would need to be totally ironed out before a passenger plane could take to the skies with no pilot on board.

At the same time any ground-based pilot would need to be confident the technology ‘connecting’ them to the aircraft is reliable. No one would want to be on board an aircraft when it lost signal or the connection “dropped out” or the computers needed a reboot!

At the same time, we would need to be sure the ground-based pilot was housed in a secure building. That building would need to be protected against physical threats, power cuts and malicious attacks. It is also vital to ensure the emerging challenge of cyber terrorism is mitigated.

It comes as no surprise to me that the UBS report found customer perception would be a major obstacle to pilotless planes. In a survey of 8,000 people, 54% said they would be unwilling to take a pilotless flight and just 17% said they would be happy to do so.

When big problems happen on a flight, passengers look for the people in charge. They want to know the pilot is right there with them though it all.

Finally, as in all things aviation, the future of pilotless planes comes down to money and it’s not all stacked against the pilot. The journey to an empty flight deck will cost billions and as ground based pilots will still be needed, there is no chance that it will save the whole of the flight deck pay bill. So, investors and shareholders in the companies developing these technologies need to ask whether devoting valuable money is going to generate a good return.

In my view, a pilotless future is still a long way off and it’s a future that few of the public feel comfortable with. On the other hand, single pilot or single pilot in the cruise may be much closer to reality.