September 19, 2020

Aircraft without pilot: possible, but unlikely

On January 16, an Airbus test plane took off from Toulouse-Blagnac airport. Its external appearance did not suspect the great novelty that was inside. For the first time, such a plane had taken off completely automatically. As described by the Airbus test pilot Yann Beaufils, who supervised the test, “once the brakes are released, the plane began to move and accelerate automatically maintaining the center line of the runway, at the exact speed of rotation when It entered the system. The nose of the plane began to rise automatically to get into the proper take-off position and a few seconds later we were in the air ». To execute the maneuver, the plane used a image recognition technology installed directly on the device.

Airbus already assured last June at the Paris Air Show that it had the technology to take off passenger planes with a single pilot or even without pilots. «When can we introduce this technology in large commercial airplanes? That is an issue that we are discussing with regulators and with customers, but in terms of technology, we do not see an obstacle, ”said Christian Scherer, commercial director of the European manufacturer at Ap. The demonstration that his statement was not a Lantern is the test they carried out on the 16th. But the question is whether the industry is prepared to take the final step and get the pilots out of the planes. And the answer is that, at this moment, it seems no.

An airplane of the Airbus company

An airplane of the Airbus company (DOUMENJOU Alexandre – MasterFilms /)

The main argument that supports the elimination of the pilots is the economic one. A UBS report estimated at 30,000 million dollars annually what the airlines would save if the two pilots currently on the planes were eliminated, an amount that would be reduced to 13,000 million if only one of the equation was eliminated. This cost cut could be moved to ticket price. According to UBS, they could be worth up to 11% less, which, in the case of the United States, would result in a cut in the price of $ 40 per ticket. Another is the shortage of commanders facing the sector. A Boeing report numbers 790,000 new commercial pilots that aviation will need in the next two decades. A problem that would be solved at a stroke with autonomous airplanes.

But the point is that the economic face a powerful ally in favor of the permanence of the pilots: the trust. Scherer himself admitted in his statements that the main short-term problem in getting commanders out of airplanes is the subjective feeling of passenger safety. The same UBS report stated that only 17% of the interviewees I would be comfortable getting on a plane without the pilots in command.

In the opinion of these professionals, “current technology is still unable to give enough confidence to passengers,” according to its Spanish union (Sepla). When a pilot puts himself at the controls of an airplane, he has «enough training to face any kind of eventuality to which the automatisms of the plane do not always know how to respond. We intervene when automatisms fail, and we do it daily, ”they say. The pilots, they explain, are involved in issues such as the behavior of conflicting passengers, the maintenance of the aircraft, technical failures or the condition of the runway where the device must land. In the last 40 years, the radio operator, the navigator and the flight engineer have disappeared from the aircraft cabins. But the step of eliminating one or both pilots is, for the collective, premature as to how they are “the ultimate guarantor of security” when they present themselves unforeseen such as birds, drones or weather changes.

The Airbus itself was commissioned, on the same day it ran the test, to reduce the possible euphoria about the proximity of flights without a pilot. The consortium said its idea is not to advance in autonomous flights “as an objective in itself”, but to explore “autonomous technologies” as well as other innovations in areas such as materials, electrification or connectivity to analyze their potential future.


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