Future of Airplanes

The Future of Airplanes

Is the Airplane of the Future Self-Flying?

April 10, 2018, Spencer Phade

Since the very first flight by the Wright brothers in 1903, flight as a mode of transportation has revolutionized our world and how we travel. But what does the future of airplanes have in store?

Since the very first flight by the Wright brothers in 1903, flight as a mode of transportation has revolutionized our world and how we travel. In 2017 alone, there were 36.8 million flights operated moving people around the globe. In a world where we are starting to believe there will be a day where autonomous cars will be common place, it raises the question. What's the future of airplanes? Or rather...

Will there be a day where we get on a plane with no human pilot on board?

Airplane technology has advanced significantly since the early days, especially in the areas of automation. In an interview, retired airline captain and current aviation safety consultant, John Cox, stated that roughly 90% of a long haul flight is flown by autopilot with some airlines even using autopilot for takeoffs and landings. 

And with further developments in unmanned flying vehicles such as drones, the technology for fully autonomous flights definitely exists.

So, what is the big thing holding back fully autonomous flight?

It comes down to one simple but important concept. Trust.

Commercial flying is still a service business. And we as consumers just aren’t at a point where we would be willing to put lives fully in the hands of robot. 

However, technological advancement in our world is progressing at an exponential rate. And what may have been revolutionary even a few years ago, such as the smartphone revolution, now has faded into everyday life to the point where we can hardly imagine our lives without them now.

This is also a generational shift. The youth growing up today who have been exposed to the digital age from day one might be more trusting in a fully autonomous plane as they will be growing up in an era where it is more normalized.

So, what does the future of airplanes hold for us with regard to autonomous flying? Forbes recently outlined a clear business case in for “emptying the cockpit.” The airline industry is a multi-billion dollar industry with historically thin profit margins. So, any opportunity for airlines to cut costs, they will almost always take it.  

They estimate there is up to $60 billion dollars to be saved annually cutting down to single pilot operations from the current dual pilot standard.  But obviously there are number government and safety regulations and standards that would have to be addressed first before even looking at the issue of public opinion.

The leading manufacturers are already investing in this type of revolutionary technology. For instance, Airbus’s subsidiary Vahana is working on an electric autonomous flying taxi that aims to be the first certified passenger aircraft without a pilot. They even recently completed their first full scale test flight in February 2018.

Though this is still a long way off from boarding a completely pilotless flight at your local airport, it shows the direction the industry is heading. What may have been a thing of science fiction in the past may truly become a reality within our lifetimes.

With autonomous cars ever present in our daily news cycles and water cooler chats, will autonomous commercial flights be the next leap into the futuristic world? 

It comes down to the level of safety and trust we as humans will be willing to put into robotics and artificial intelligence.

So next time you are walking through the gate boarding your next flight, take a peek in the cockpit as the pilots doing their preflight checks . Would you still get on if there was no one there at all?

That may be the future of airplanes.


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