Monday, June 28, 2010

Unpiloted, automated passenger aircraft: coming to an airport near you

Posted by John Keller

Commercial airliners may be on the verge of a transformation every bit as significant as the switch from propeller to jet power, and once again likely will demonstrate the ability of air passengers to adapt quickly to new technologies that many say they will never accept.

What I'm talking about is the likely future of unpiloted, automated passenger aircraft. Yeah, yeah, I've heard it before -- nobody will fly on a plane without a human pilot. We've all heard the joke about the automated passenger aircraft on which nothing can go wrong ... go wrong ... go wrong.

Yet while it's true that passengers want to get to their destinations safely and with peace of mind, what the unpiloted passenger aircraft skeptics underestimate is how much passengers want to get to their destinations. Period. Get 'em where they want to go, when they want to get there, and they'll adapt.

Case in point: the Boeing 707 jetliner. The 707, developed in the 1950s, was one of the first commercially successful passenger jets, and dominated commercial aviation during the 1960s and into the '70s. When its design first went onto the drawing boards, nay-sayers said passengers would never board an aircraft that didn't have propellers.

Those in the aviation industry who believed this put their money behind other passenger aircraft designs of the day, such as the three-tailed Lockheed Constellation. Quick show of hands: how many remember the 707, and how many remember the Constellation? I thought so. Some of the first 707 passengers may have been a little nervous about seeing no propellers on the wings, but evidently that didn't last long.

We'll see the same thing when we see the first unpiloted passenger jets, and that could be sooner than you think. New Scientist has a story out online this week entitled Drone alone: how airliners may lose their pilots. It points out research projects on both sides of the Atlantic to find ways for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to share civil airspace with passenger jets.

It's only a matter of time, the article points out, before researchers can find a way for UAVs to share airspace with passenger jets, which will lead to unpiloted cargo aircraft, and finally to unpiloted passenger aircraft. Would you as a passenger fly in a plane without a pilot?

Let me tell you, if this approach led to fewer delays at the airport, I'd be on unpiloted planes in a heartbeat. I'm betting you would, too.

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1 comment:

  1. And where is the compelling argument that shows us exactly why the human pilot element is the reason we have delays at airports? Delays are caused by weather, baggage issues, passengers on no-fly lists, equipment malfunctions and the simple difficulty of trying to squeeze too many flights into too few slots.

    No embedded system could replace, for example, the Hudson River crash pilot. So a UAV network needs a fallback to ground pilots (a la Predator) which essentially means when there's an onboard emergency, the plane makes a 911 call and has to wait for someone on the ground to react.

    Your argument - and if there is one, it's well hidden in generalities - is of the Pinto ilk.

    Passenger UAVs might be the best thing ever... for the transoceanic steamship industry.