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Would you be happy to fly in a pilotless airliner?

pilotless aircraft feature image
There has been plenty of coverage in the media of driverless cars and experts are predicting the first fully automated vehicles will be widely available by 2025.  Which is staggering to those of us who can remember having to struggle with a manual choke in a morning.

The speed in which driverless cars have gone from sci-fi movie concept to actually appearing on the roads is incredible but, with that technology well on the way to being adapted into mass production, thoughts are now inevitably turning to the next challenge.

Eyes are turning towards the skies and the possibility of pilotless airliners.

Scary or what?

Notice I said pilotless airliners.  Not aircraft.

There is nothing new about the later.  The Germans developed the basics of the technology with their V1 rockets during the Second World War and now drones of all sizes are commonplace.

Getting an unmanned aircraft from A to B and landing it safely isn’t a problem.  However, taking that technology and putting it into an airliner with hundreds of passengers on board is an entirely different thing altogether.

But, it is something Boeing are actively looking at and they even hope to carry out some testing within the next twelve months.

pilots in cockpit

An idea too far?

A quick straw poll amongst fellow passengers on a recent flight I took was unanimous.  No way would anyone I asked be willing to fly on a plane without a pilot.

Which is understandable but, pilotless airliners are surely inevitable. Technology, as technology does, will advance rapidly and it will only be a matter of time before the first airliners take off sans pilot.

pilotless aircraft cockpit

It is often said a human pilot is only needed to for taking off and landing a plane with the on board computer doing most of the work anyway.

With that in mind a truly pilotless aircraft doesn’t seem such a stretch.  Something Boeing’s vice president of product development, Mike Sinnett, agrees with.  “The basic building blocks of the technology clearly are available,” he told Reuters.

The biggest barriers to commercial pilotless airliners will be regulatory.  Manufacturers such as Boeing are going to have to jump through a lot of hoops before this form of travel gets approved by governments and safety regulators.  “I have no idea how we’re going to do that….. we’re studying it right now,” Sinnett said.

There is also the question of insurance.  Would the costs of insuring the aircraft and its passengers make flights unaffordable?

Why do we need pilotless airliners?

It’s purely down to the volume of passengers and the number of pilots needed for the ever increasing number of flights.  According to estimates an additional 1.5million pilots will be needed over the next twenty years.
female pilot

Hopping on a plane is now as routine as catching a bus (except for the passport thing of course) and, as demand continues to grow, the airlines will struggle to recruit and train the number of pilots they need.

Pilotless aircraft are a practical necessity and, although they won’t be a commercial reality for quite some time, they will definitely arrive.  Will you happy to fly on one? Let us know in the comments below……



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Craig Ellyard

Token old guy in the office and lifelong Hull City fan with all the psychological issues that brings. To relax I enjoy walking my two Labradors, as well as running and cycling.


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  1. Alex B 1 July, 2017 at 01:15

    Anything new is scary, especially when it’s your life on the line and I’m sure plenty of people will be apprehensive, but then again the pilotless planes won’t just appear overnight.

  2. Graham 3 July, 2017 at 09:22

    As an ex-pilot nothing would induce me to board a flight that was unable to allow human intervention. We’ve seen in recent years the problems that can occur when flight computers are unable to resolve conflicting data and the Auto Pilot cuts out. The classic was the Qantas flight when an engine suffered a catastrophic turbine failure and wrecked the hydraulic systems; it was only the incredible actions of the crew – who happened to include an extra senior pilot that day – that saved the aircraft and its passengers. It was beyond the scope of the plane’s automated systems and required human ingenuity (and brute force) to land the behemoth safely. No pilot – no way!

  3. Roger H 3 July, 2017 at 09:40

    Except for the 24 mile long Docklands Light Railway driver less trains are virtually non existent. Trains run on dedicated tracks controlled by a well developed signaling system and still need drivers. To put pilot less airliners into three dimensions relying on computers which can fail and are vulnerable to cyber attack is tempting fate.

  4. Anonymous 3 July, 2017 at 10:45

    I believe first step will be like drones. The pilot stays in the ground flying the planes in a simulator, this way you have more pilots available for any flight. Only question is that , when a plane have a pilot inside, he will pay with his life if something happens, so I am sure all pilots make the best and find amazing solutions to not crash. Would they do the same inside of a simulator or would feel more like loosing a “life” in a video game?

  5. Nige 11 July, 2017 at 10:34

    Well why not bypass air travel completely !! All this talk of automation and progress and what will be. Why travel on holiday at all ? Stick on a virtual reality headset , turn up the heating, buy some cans of lager and a tub of icecream . Then for a week you would never have to leave your bed yet still be ”in your tropical paradise”. All this automation is all very well as long as it works . Even for the most basic automated things like washing machines, central heating , security lighting its ok while it works but the day it doesn’t it is useless.

  6. John Hole 17 July, 2017 at 09:55

    It’s a double edged sword. All the disadvantages people have voiced are very valid. Though I can think of a major advantage, it would be almost impossible for terrorist on board to take control. That should greatly reduce the opportunity for them to hijack a plane.

  7. Anonymous 17 July, 2017 at 10:07

    @Roger H – Driverless trains have been a possibility for years, the only thing stopping them from universal adoption is the unions.

    @Graham – You wouldn’t have said that on those occasions where pilot error or intent have resulted in a crash.
    The reality is that advances in technology will simply squeeze out the need for a pilot and passengers will gradually become accustomed to the idea that the pilot is only there for show and then the airlines will suggest that wouldn’t it be better to pay less for your ticket.

    @Nige – When you see what most holidaymakers get upto I ask myself that question all the time.

    Personally I think they’re going to have a hard enough time selling automated cars, because at the end of the day having non-automated cars on the road at the same time is going to cause all sorts of fun.

  8. Paul Hancock 17 July, 2017 at 10:14

    More accidents have been caused by pilot error than computer/autopilot malfunction, so satistically, having no pilot would be safer. Most of the time where the autopilot has crashed the plane its because a human couldn’t understand the system and left it in the wrong mode.

  9. Anonymous 17 July, 2017 at 10:19

    @john Hole. Hardly a major advantage, unless there’s loads of hijackings being covered up that we don’t get to hear about. Not that I worry about either but drunk/drugged up/sick/late pilots etc are a far more regular occurrence.

    Furthermore, a pilotless plane potentially provides more opportunity for outside intervention … there are a heck of alot more people willing to remotely hack into an automated plane than there are those willing to do it in person.

  10. Cem 17 July, 2017 at 10:44

    What happens in a situation like a bird strike, that can disable all engines. Never forget the Hudson river landing that saved passengers lives. Personally I wouldnt most certainly want to fly in a pilotless airliner. What if a critical component fails that is linked to the automated system and requires a manual flight to continue the journey. Why reduce the cost by stopping pilots all together. The big boys dont care its more money in their pockets and they tend to forget that passngers lives matter. I feel that no matter how robust this pilotless airliner will be somewhere down the line there will be something that goes wrong and will not be able to save the plane in the sky and the lives to go with it. Then what? Ground all pilotless airliners until further notice that’ll be a big loss for the big firms.

  11. Hugh 17 July, 2017 at 13:12

    A point about your opening paragraphs: – The V1 was powered by a ram-jet engine it was not a rocket, the V2 was a rocket.

  12. Anonymous 15 September, 2017 at 10:32

    In 20 years or so, I imagine you would get a unanimous “no” if you ask, “would you fly in an airliner flown by a person?”.

  13. Ian Dabbs 15 September, 2017 at 11:28

    Driverless trains will be the norm on the tube like docklands light railway , A few tube lines have the capability now Aircraft are fully automated and because of the lack of pilots, may be controlled from the ground with only one pilot, next decade
    Driverless cars are far harder than pilotless aircraft.

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