Before thinking of passengers traveling on foot, virtual reality on airplanes or luggage tracking applications there is another great transformation in aviation that is approaching: flights without pilots.
At this year’s “Paris Air Show” convention, the aircraft manufacturer Airbus said it is promoting the idea of unmanned commercial travel among aviation regulators. In the same way it is doing its rival in the industry, Boeing.
The moment chosen for this bet could not be better.
With the growing demand for air travel, more than 800,000 new pilots may be needed in the next 20 years.
However, the offer of new flight commanders barely meets current demand, which creates “one of the biggest challenges” for the airline industry, as Boeing says.
While pilotless flight technology offers a relief window, it also poses challenges that could ultimately hinder its takeoff to the skies.
Here are three of them.
1. The policy
Innovation invariably creates winners and losers.
In the transport of people, the introduction of the automobile displaced the demand for trains, just as the railroads did, in previous decades, with that of maritime services.
The changes generated job offers for some workers, as well as settlement checks for others.
Nicholas Carr best summarizes this reality in his book “The Crystal Box: Automation and Us” when he says: “There is no economic law that says that all, or even most people, automatically benefit from technological progress.”
Airplanes without a pilot are an excellent example of this.
While technology promises to revolutionize travel, entry will eliminate jobs, specifically those of pilots.
Aviation employs tens of thousands of them worldwide, qualified professionals who transport billions of passengers over billions of kilometers.
Delegating this task to the machines would produce widespread unemployment among these professionals, which will lead them to fight to apply their skills in another industry.
That is not an easy task, considering that flying demands very specific skills.
That’s where politics comes in.
Airline pilots are backed by powerful unions, organizations that use collective bargaining, contributions to political campaigns and lobbying to influence problems that affect their members.
Take as an example the Association of Airline Pilots (Alpa).
Representing more than 63,000 pilots worldwide, a compelling example of Alpa’s influence dates back to the 1960s.
In previous decades, aircraft required a third crew member in the cabin, the flight engineer, who supervised the instruments of the aircraft and assisted pilots in troubleshooting.
However, technological advances made flight engineers obsolete and manufacturers began producing aircraft designed for only two crew members.
Given the inevitable loss of jobs among its members, Alpa resisted the adoption of these aircraft, waging what was “a long contractual struggle to give flight engineers significant tasks.”
Similar tactics are likely if pilotless aircraft technology reaches maturity. Alpa has already expressed its opposition to further reducing the number of crew members.
Unions have allies in their fight against algorithms that replace people.
This is because automating the flight not only threatens the work of commercial airlines, but also academies.
These institutions employ tens of thousands of people, such as flight instructors, ground speakers and simulation experts, to run pilot training programs around the world. Technology without a pilot also threatens these professions.
2. Insurance companies
Aircraft are not cheap. The Boeing 737, a small single-aisle passenger plane, costs more than $100 million each.
Its largest double aisle counterpart, the Boeing 777, costs more than US $ 300 million. Although airlines get discounts for large orders, the final bill can be substantial.
In 2011, American Airlines spent more than US $ 30,000 on modernizing its fleet.
Recovering those costs means putting the planes to work and that can be risky. Although accidents are rare, they happen and when they do, airline balances are affected.
That’s where insurance comes in.
Airlines buy policies to cover losses if an airplane is damaged or destroyed. These policies also protect carriers against claims arising from injuries related to accidents and property damage.
No one knows exactly how much the airlines pay for insurance coverage: insurers protect their rates to maintain a competitive advantage.
However, premiums cost the industry billions of dollars annually, which makes this expense a key determinant in the profits (or losses) of an airline.
An important question facing technology without a pilot is how it will affect insurance premiums.
Intuition suggests that premiums should go down. After all, airplanes without a pilot, driven by a sophisticated range of sensors and software, eliminate the main factor involved in most air accidents: human errors .
This means that, although accidents today are rare, in the era of pilotless flight they will be more rare. Less accidents will mean less payments from insurers.
At least that’s the idea. The reality can be more complicated.
Today’s airplanes are already heavy weights in the use of algorithmic. Unlike their predecessors who depended on the mental muscle to fly, modern airplanes have software.
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner, a basic of worldwide fleets and state-of-the-art aircraft, is powered by millions of lines of code.
More code allows more features that improve security, but also creates a new type of risk.
In 2015, government regulators warned that the Dreamliner could experience power system failures. The reason ?, a software failure not detected by engineers that could lead to a “loss of control of the plane”.
The culprit, once again, were the software errors that the engineers could not detect. As the code becomes more complex, testing it thoroughly for weaknesses becomes more difficult.
Another related algorithmic risk is software hacking .
In 2008, government regulators warned that the Dreamliner’s flight control system could be accessed through the airplane’s entertainment system, allowing passengers to override the pilots’ commands.
According to a government document, the design of the aircraft allowed “new types of passenger connectivity to previously isolated data networks, connected to systems that perform the functions required for the safe operation of the aircraft.”
More recently, a team of professionals managed hacekar remotely a Boeing 757 using radio waves.
These risks will increase with aircraft without a pilot.
Pilots take most of the profits of an airline, with salaries ranging from US $ 147,000 per year for those with 5 years of experience to almost US $ 300,000 for the most experienced.
These considerable figures reflect the reality facing an industry interested in controlling costs: pilots are scarce and learning to fly is arduous and expensive.
These factors push wages up, which makes them a key factor in an airline’s labor cost and, along with fuel, among the highest expenses.
Of course, pilotless technology should change this.
The Swiss bank UBS estimates that removing humans from the commercial booth could save more than US $35,000 million a year.
That figure would increase profits in an industry that has often had financial problems.
The virtues of cash saving algorithms are well known. The software is credited with the extensive cost reduction. Why can’t the same approach be adopted in commercial aviation?
Aerospace manufacturers seem to think so.
In 2017, a Boeing executive endorsed the idea of aircraft without a pilot and said: “The basic components of technology are clearly available.”
His Airbus counterpart said his company already has “autonomous flight technology.”
However, autonomous does not mean without humans.
While sensors and software reduce the need for manual work, that need is not, contrary to what we are told, completely eliminated.
In fact, it would be difficult to find an industry in which algorithms work without any participation or human supervision.
The reason ?, automation is imperfect. It happens the same as humans, and when that happens, the results can, depending on the industry, catastrophic.
For example, the autopilot of the plane. First launched in 1912, “George”, as it is known colloquially, has become a staple of the modern cabin.
When activated, its algorithms can process data faster and more reliably than a human pilot, which ultimately produces a safer and more fluid flight experience.
But autopilot failures have also been involved in air accidents. That is why its use is only approved under the watchful eye of a human pilot.
Regulators know that you cannot trust that “George”, even with all his virtues, always do things right. It would be difficult to find an aerospace manufacturer that disagrees with such reasoning.
Manufacturers could try to reduce the number of crew on board. UBS estimates that passing two to one pilot in the cabin would still produce some savings (although US $ 20,000 million less than running out of pilots).
According to UBS analyst Celine Fornaro, the so-called “single pilot operations” could become a reality as early as 2022.
But this proposal is equally problematic.
This is because it assumes that the only human pilot will take control in time every time the automation fails. Manufacturers are cautious.
The idea is simple: with a pilot behind the controls, a second is always ready to provide additional support.
However, instead of being in the cabin, the second aviator monitors the plane from the ground.
It’s a good idea, but it raises an important question: how many planes should the second pilot have under supervision?
After all, paying this person to monitor only one plane eliminates the cost advantage of $ 15 billion offered by a single pilot cabin.
Under these conditions, it is better for airlines to keep two pilots in the cockpit. But if the costs of remote monitoring can be distributed on several planes, the idea becomes economically more feasible.
And it also becomes more risky.
After all, can you really expect a remote pilot to help a troubled plane while watching others?
What happens when several planes need help? Can aerospace manufacturers and airlines guarantee this configuration, one that tests the limits of human attention and memory, without compromising passenger safety?
Until they can do it, it is unlikely that the idea will take off.