A Pilotless Future? Some See It Coming

Technologists like Honeywell's Bob Witwer see no reason why most airplanes in the future can't be controlled entirely by computers.

Hal 2001

Hal 2001

Honeywell advanced technology guru Bob Witwer gave an interesting talk in Las Vegas this week in which he discussed the future of air travel and posed the intriguing question of whether airliners, cargo planes and business jets years from now will have a need for pilots or, indeed, even cockpit windows.

If the thought of the captain of your airliner being a software app that lives in the avionics gives you pause, you’re not alone. Still, as we shift to a satellite-based NextGen operating environment where airplanes can be controlled by computers in 4-D – that is, having the capability of hitting a specific point in space at a precise time, every time – will airliners really need two pilots? Will they even need one?

The idea that's quietly gaining traction is that the “pilots” would sit in an air-conditioned room in some central location on the ground and perform certain necessary flight duties via a comm link. Of course, we’ve already witnessed the rise of unmanned aerial vehicles, which have been used as killing machines in the airspace over foreign nations and for law enforcement and other duties here at home. The next logical step, many say, is to take aircraft that are currently piloted by humans and replace the pilots with computers.

“It’s kind of hard for me to imagine why we wouldn’t use unmanned vehicles 10 or 20 years from now to carry cargo if the infrastructure allowed us to move aircraft safely without a pilot,” said Witwer, who is vice president for advanced technology at Honeywell Aerospace. “The most important aspect of UAVs interacting in the NextGen environment is how we deal with them from a control point of view, which I think has a direct impact on where the future of cockpit automation is headed.”

Witwer reasons that removing one or both pilots from the cockpits of cargo planes and airliners will immediately solve the coming pilot shortage we hear so much about. It will also save the airlines vast sums of money while simultaneously making money for the companies that design and produce automated cockpits and related infrastructure.

I think replacing both pilots of a commercial airliner with cockpit automation and some sort of secure datalink to the ground is an enormous stretch. I could be proven wrong, but I don’t see a day when passengers will voluntarily shuffle to their rows with the knowledge that the computers are in charge and there’s no human to be held physically accountable for their safety on that particular flight.

Replacing one pilot, however, is a much more likely scenario that I think will happen eventually – although maybe not in the 10- to 20-year timeframe some foresee. Pilotless cargo planes? Well, that could happen in a decade or two.

Of course, the question everybody asks is what if the lone pilot in the cockpit has a heart attack? The answer is that the backup “pilots” on the ground who are responsible for performing first officer duties for multiple airplanes could focus their attention on any one airplane in an emergency.

That leads to the question of whether this sort of advanced technology could one day have a place in general aviation. Imagine if could fly your Cirrus or Skyhawk or Baron equipped with the latest advanced NextGen cockpit tools, and also be linked with a live human on the ground who could serve as a second crewmember at busy times or, if need be, even take control of the airplane in an emergency?

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