Over the next 100 years, the world will witness several changes that shall have sweeping ramifications on the way we communicate, conduct business, and commute. One such technology that is at the cusp of transforming air travel is pilotless planes, which is poised to derive immense economic benefits for the aerospace and aviation industry. According to the latest research report by Swiss bank UBS, pilotless planes would allow mission optimisation, bring in greater predictability, and reduce flight crew and training costs. To put it in absolute numbers, the said technology would contribute over $35bn in savings annually for the industry. The report further mentions that the technology could bring in more than $26bn in pilot cost savings for the airlines; up to $3bn in pilot savings for the business jet industry and a potential cost opportunity of $1bn for the logistics industry. Moreover, it would also register $2.1bn savings for civil helicopters and $3bn annually savings from lower insurance premiums and pilot training costs. In terms of adopting unmanned aircraft technology, the logistics sector will be the first subsector to integrate new related technologies, with the number of pilots falling from two to one and eventually from one to none. Also, freight and logistics operators could be the first adopters of drones and other types of autonomous aircraft.
Technology of the future
One of the key benefits that the technology presents is the reduction of aircraft accidents. Although aircraft accidents are a rare phenomenon today, nearly 70-80 percent air accidents that occur are due to human error; moreover, crew fatigue is the cause for 15-20 percent of the overall aircraft accidents (official data by Human Error Analysis, FAA, February-2001). Subsequently, experts opine that a reduction in accidents caused by human error could possibly generate better fiscal numbers through insurance premium savings. With an impetus on building aircraft systems that are less reliant on human intervention would not only improve safety but also reduce costs attributed to a pilot’s training and remuneration.
Among the many challenges that pilotless planes have to overcome are the discerning concerns towards flying without a pilot that incidentally has no human intervention — a proposition that doesn’t excite the majority of travelers. While the same report maintains that about 54 percent pertaining to the 8,000 people surveyed by UBS were unlikely to take a pilotless flight. In addition to the customer apprehensions towards flying in a pilotless aircraft, the current dynamics aren’t cohesive for regulating and maintaining the technology. For instance, international regulators like the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in the US and European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) do not possess the framework to certify pilotless planes and therefore are required to develop the necessary framework to support the technology. However, the industry is optimistic that this mass perception would change over the course of time with successfully mitigating the challenges particularly with security and technology, better awareness and a novel mindset.
Since the idea of unmanned passenger aircraft could take awhile, several entities are exploring avenues that could possibly host the technology for pilotless cargo aircraft and have already initiated measures to build systems that support the initiative. Moreover, building and operating unmanned aircraft would prove economically viable considering it would utilize no or less workforce in comparison to a manned aircraft; wouldn’t necessitate the need for life support systems and consume less fuel since it could be flown at a low cruising speed. However, the technology isn’t new to the sector, for instance, the aerospace and defence (A&D) sector for more than two decades has been instrumental in developing technology that supports unmanned flight and fully autonomous planes (without ground-based control). While unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) or remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS) are already in use during combat, the same technology is pitched to be used in civil aviation particularly for unmanned air cargo. Accordingly, it also asserts with the 24-hour nature of cargo flights, which is well suited to artificial pilots that do not need to overcome the challenges related to burnout and stress.
While the UBS report maintains that embedding pilotless technology can further improve opportunities for entrepreneurs to compete with existing players. It will also enhance the competition into the logistics arena by Amazon or other non-traditional players in transport markets due to a reduction in pilot intensity. Moreover, the technology could also create avenues for mid-sized companies to offer more narrow services that are targeted at particular verticals and require specific control. Currently, several retail giants are already working on drones that would deliver basic commodities and are creating systems that would further enhance the same technology for major transportation and logistics needs. One fine example is that of Airbus developing Skyways, which is an unmanned aerial delivery solution (a fully autonomous octocopter) scheduled to go on trial in Singapore in early 2018. The Skyways project is a delivery solution that aims to provide efficient delivery of small parcels to students and faculties using drones. Significantly, post this trial Airbus plans to launch commercial projects in Singapore and extend the same to passenger transport. Also, Uber has teamed up with companies such as Bell Helicopter, Aurora, Mooney, Embraer and Pipistrel to make flying taxis.
Optimism over cynicism
While the idea of unmanned aircraft hasn’t received the same response from passengers, on the contrary, a larger section of the younger demographic is positive about this change and certainly bodes well for the technology as the population ages. Moreover, the fact that cargo is not concerned with the status of its pilot (human or autonomous) the transition of manned aircraft cargo to pilotless aircraft cargo would be a speedy transition. Interestingly, the following decade would see the ultimate rise in unmanned aircraft travels considering the aerospace and aviation industry is creating technology that is far superior and conducive to pilotless travels.