Are pilotless commercial planes within reach?
The appearance of autonomous vehicles, such as self-driving cars or drones, show the progress and proliferation of a technology that allows it to steer itself, without human intervention or with very little dose of it. How far this trend can go is an uncertain limit, which will undoubtedly be reconsidered as time progresses. But could pilotless commercial airplanes exist? Technical advances in the aviation industry, sensors and robotics strongly point towards this possibility.
After the construction of autonomous cars and the materialization of drones , transferring this same scheme to airplanes seems a natural step. In fact, drones are considered unmanned flying devices, although much lighter and without the requirements of a commercial aircraft. The feat is not as far away as one might think, since tests have already been carried out in which the flight was controlled from the ground , instead of from the cockpit.
The BAE Systems company, specialized in military and commercial aeronautics, has carried out several experimental flights with a 16-passenger jet. None of the seats were occupied, mind you, nor was the pilot’s chair. He changes the heights for screens and controls on the ground, from where he directs the plane’s course. There are only two maneuvers that are controlled from the air, the most complicated: takeoff and landing.
Two pilots take control of the craft as the jet takes off and lands, but do not intervene for the rest of the flight. In this space of time , robotics and sensors are relied on to inform the ground pilot or automate certain tasks. In this way, possible eventualities can be identified and avoided.
BAE Systems’ experimental flights are part of the ASTREA programme, which uses drone technology developed over the past six years to enable autonomous piloting of aircraft. “Flying a self-driving vehicle isn’t as much fun as flying a regular plane. However, it has many of the same challenges and you need to have the same knowledge,” explains Bob Fraser, a pilot with 37 years of experience who guides the jet from the ground.