Airlines and plane manufacturers are looking towards the era of single-pilot aircraft – and aircraft with no pilots at all – as they seek to lower costs and address a looming worldwide pilot shortage.
Pilotless aircraft are already flying – or at least, aircraft where the pilots are not in the plane. Unmanned surveillance planes and armed military drones operate over war zones and areas of hostility, remotely flown by pilots sitting thousands of miles away.
US avionics and information technology firm Rockwell Collins has been selected by NASA as the lead research firm for its Single Pilot Operation program.
“The research is exploring concepts and technology for crew capacity, ground support and automation on commercial airlines,” the company says.
John Borghese, vice president Advanced Technology Centre for Rockwell Collins, explains: “The aviation industry has been looking at the potential for single-pilot operations for quite some time to address concerns about future pilot shortages, but there are a number of technical, certification, and policy considerations that must be addressed along the way.”
“Social acceptability must also be considered.”
Passengers in any single-pilot airliner might well be concerned about what would happen if the sole pilot suddenly fell ill – or worse.
Rockwell Collins is also conducting cognitive science research with its academic partners on the program, California State University, Long Beach, and the University of Iowa.
Borghese added, “NASA research is instrumental in achieving progress toward the end goal of reducing pilot workload in the flight deck.”
Boeing has already pointed out that the expansion of global economies and the delivery to airlines of tens of thousands of new commercial jetliners over the next 20 years will create unprecedented demand for people to pilot and maintain those aircraft.
To meet this tremendous growth, the 2015 Boeing Pilot and Technical Outlook forecasts that between now and 2034, the aviation industry will need to supply more than one million new aviation personnel – 58,000 commercial airline pilots and 609,000 maintenance technicians. See: In-demand jobs of the future: pilot or airline technician
An article on a similar subject in the Sydney Morning Herald at the weekend began with a jocular description of the cockpit of the future:
“The flight deck will contain one human and one dog. The pilot will be there to scan the instruments, and the dog will bite his hand if he touches anything.”
Written by Peter Needham