No pilot? No problem. Boeing teases idea of self-flying planes


We're just getting used to the idea that companies like Google and Tesla are experimenting with self-driving cars. Technology has evolved so much that we're entrusting computers to do what we don't trust many humans to do very well – drive safely. What if you took the same concept to the skies? One company just might. 

Airplane manufacturer Boeing is telling the media that it plans to test pilotless technology next year to determine how feasible it would be to have aircraft guided by computers without the aid of a physical pilot on board. If that makes you uncomfortable, think about this: most aircraft today are largely flown by computers with the pilots playing a lesser hands-on role than most people realize. We also take self-driving trains through airport terminals but there's just something about being 35,000 feet in the air that makes this idea a little different for many flyers. 

Large transport aircraft today fly on technology from take-off to landing. The number of pilots used to average three on an aircraft, with a pilot, co-pilot and fight engineer who monitored on-board systems. Today you will nearly always see two pilots even though most of the flying is done by computers. The safety record of the industry is a testament to how well technology has worked in the cockpit. There have been rare instances where technology has overwhelmed a cockpit crew to the point of threatening a flight's safety, but training improvements have mitigated concerns over too much tech exceeding the capacity of flight crews when things go wrong. Despite all the assurances, passengers would need a lot of convincing that a "pilotless" aircraft is just as safe – or safer – than it is today. 

In an article on the topic of pilotless aircraft in Wired, the author points out that the degree to which pilots control today's sophisticated aircraft depends largely on airline and government policies. For instance, U.S. pilots are given more responsibility to control an aircraft while pilots flying for Asian carriers are more restricted. Pilots for these carriers are instructed to let the computers do all the flying after the aircraft has climbed to 3,000 feet. On Asiana Airlines, only the captain can land the aircraft, not the first officer. 

Airlines are warm to the idea of pilotless technology driving (or in this case flying) the future of air transport. The cost savings in greater efficiency and pilot staffing are obvious. However experts warn that a whole new certification process might be required of safety regulators and this could put the likelihood of self-flying aircraft years into the future. Some pilots also point out that despite all of the available computer technology in cockpits today, the experience and wisdom of a seasoned pilot having to make a life-and-death decision under dire circumstances could only be achieved by a human being in the cockpit, much like "Sully" Sullenberger did when he crash landed his disabled aircraft into New York's Hudson River in 2009. 

Boeing might have the industry convinced that it is ready for high-tech pilotless planes but assuring passengers and safety agencies might take a little more low-tech persuasion. That won't stop the manufacturer from trying and testing the viability of pilotless travel and proving that the technology could work, no matter how far into the future it will take to become reality.