Over the next few weeks, a twin-engined Jetstream will fly from the Warton Aerodrome in Lancashire towards Scotland but it won’t be an ordinary flight as the aircraft will be pilotless according to the Economist. That’s not entirely accurate as there will be a pilot. Its just the pilot will be flying the aircraft from a control room on the ground (but just in case things go wrong with the experiment, there will be a pilot in the cockpit to take over). The flight itself is part of a project to develop the technologies and procedures that ultimately will allow large commercial aircraft to operate pilotless.
No doubt such an idea would have airline executives like Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary salivating because after all, think of how much cost savings there would be if there were no pilots in the cockpit? Or better yet, how much more cost savings there would be if you had one guy on the ground “piloting” a couple of aircraft?
But jokes aside, we are nearly at that point already as modern aircraft are already perfectly capable of taking off, flying to a destination and landing automatically. Its just there are a couple of (very expensive) pilots in the cockpit to keep an eye on things and make sure the rules of the air are complied with.
So part of the experiment is to test how well air-traffic controllers can communicate with a pilot on the ground through the aircraft and how to make the radio and satellite links both secure and reliable. However, the engineers behind pilotless aircraft will still need to be prepared for the inevitable break in communication where the aircraft will have to figure out how to safely operate or land on its own.
The Economist also made the point that while pilotless aircraft may not be here just yet, such experiments are are improving aircraft systems while in the early days of commercial aviation:
Many early large aircraft had a crew of five: two pilots, a flight engineer, a navigator and a radio operator. First the radio operator went, then the navigator, and by the time the jet era was well under way in the 1970s flight engineers began to disappear too. Next it could be the co-pilot, replaced by the autonomous flight systems now being developed.
So if you are a co-pilot who has not made Captain yet, you better work on getting that promotion before your job goes the way of the flight engineer and the navigator!