The aircraft are already here. Pilot unions are preparing for battle. And the FAA is playing it cool. Autonomous flight is coming to civil aviation sooner than anyone thinks, and it may prove to be a surprising boon for flyover country.
In January, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun revealed an open secret in the world of aviation. “I think the future of autonomy is real for civil,” he told Bloomberg TV, before quickly offering some qualifiers. “It’s going to take time. Everyone’s got to build confidence. We need a certification process that we all have faith and believe in.”
The U.S. military has been flying autonomous planes for decades, of course, but always in a segregated airspace. Now it’s becoming increasingly clear that self-flying planes are coming to commercial aviation, and not in some distant Jetsons future world. Aircraft manufacturers are working toward it. Airlines are eager for it. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is preparing for it. And pilot unions acknowledge the threat is looming on the horizon.
A decade ago, the conversation was largely speculative. But today, many in the aviation industry believe that small, self-flying planes could be carrying passengers by the end of this decade. Then, barring no major safety incidents, it could take as little as another decade before larger passenger jets operate without a pilot on the flight deck.
“It’s all about money,” says Dennis Tajer, a pilot for 35 years and the spokesman for Allied Pilots Association, which represents 15,000 American Airlines pilots. “Manufacturers are looking for the next innovative technology to deploy so that they can sell it and make money, and airlines are looking at how they can do this more cheaply.”
It’s a charge that’s difficult to rebut. Six years ago, a report from the Swiss bank UBS estimated that autonomous planes could save the air transportation industry more than $35 billion per year. Still, the same report flagged a bright red public perception problem.
A 2017 global survey found that a majority of people would be unwilling to fly in a plane without a pilot, even if the airfare were cheaper. The next year, a public survey from Ipsos found that 81% of Americans would not be comfortable traveling on a self-flying plane. Notably, that survey was sponsored by the Air Lines Pilots Association (ALPA), whose 65,000 members make up the largest pilot union in the country.
The introduction of autonomous aircraft into the civil aviation mix will begin with small cargo planes, led by companies like Xwing, a Northern California-based startup. “We took an existing Cessna airframe,” says Xwing CEO Marc Piette, “which is the most widely used express cargo airframe, and we’ve been modifying that vehicle to convert it to a remotely-supervised vehicle. We think the cargo market is the best first place to deploy this. And we’ve been very deliberate.”
For the past few years, Xwing has been running automated test missions, mainly in California. A flight plan is submitted, just as if there were a human pilot, and the flight’s parameters are pre-programmed before takeoff. “It’s really a one-click thing,” Piette says. “You engage the system and it runs its mission.”
Until the technology is certified by the FAA, however, there will need to be a safety pilot on board. This allows Xwing to fly without jumping through regulatory hoops. “The safety pilot can disconnect a system and revert the aircraft to manual flying, but otherwise doesn’t do anything but monitor the system. It’s a very boring job,” Piette explains. Meanwhile, the Cessna is operated from the ground, with one human controller watching a moving map on a screen and interfacing with air traffic control.
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