Meanwhile, NASA is currently studying the concept of single-pilot airline cockpits, where a first officer on the ground is monitoring several flights at once. In emergencies or unusual circumstances, the ground first officer could transfer responsibilities for other flights and focus solely on the flight that needed attention; if the sole pilot becomes incapacitated, the plane could be controlled from the ground.
But follow this idea to its logical conclusion, and you reach the question: Why have a pilot in the air at all? NASA’s single-pilot concept sounds like it’d be prone to many of the same performance issues of highly automated two-pilot airliners, with the added twist of the pilot’s extended isolation for hours on end, locked behind the cockpit door.
In a talk at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech Conference in January 2015, John Tracy, Boeing’s chief technology officer, said: “Some of our freighter customers are asking us for those [autonomous airplane] systems today.”
He went on: “We are quite confident that technologically, the toolkit is filled. With respect to a commercial airplane, there is no doubt in our minds that we can solve the problem of autonomous flight. It’s a question of certification procedures, regulatory requirements and, even more significantly, public perception. Will the flying public be comfortable getting onto a commercial plane with no pilot?”
For the near future, at least, it seems that the question may remain a hypothetical. When asked if the company is developing an autonomous commercial plane, a Boeing spokesperson responded: “Whatever research Boeing may be doing in this area is proprietary and we won’t elaborate beyond what Mr. Tracy said.”
A spokesperson for Airbus, Boeing’s fiercest competitor, said: “Airbus is not developing an autonomous airplane.”
And a spokesperson for the FAA, which would be responsible for certifying an autonomous plane, said: “The FAA has no current unmanned aircraft certification projects in the transport category, nor has anyone engaged the agency on such a project.”
But as Tracy put it, the toolkit is filled—the latest fly-by-wire commercial jets, like Boeing’s 787 and the Airbus A350, already have flight-control computers, so there’s no need to start from scratch. The design work is largely done. In emergencies, instead of pilots following pop-up instructions and monitoring systems on display screens, all steps could be accomplished automatically, as the autopilot flawlessly flew the plane on the appropriate route, altitude, and airspeed. Nice, at least in theory.
But when it comes to flying planes, humans are still better than computers at quickly assimilating unrelated facts and acting on them. Consider, for example, Captain Chelsey Sullenberger’s landing on January 15, 2009, when he successfully avoided a crash by navigating an Airbus A320 into the Hudson River. Or the United Airlines crew at Sioux City, Iowa, on July 19, 1989, artfully steering their crippled DC-10 to a survivable crash landing after the center engine exploded, disabling the plane’s redundant flight controls. When the first autonomous plane rolls out of the factory with no cockpit windows, I hope it can match the performance of those crews. Until that’s a possibility, the idea of “doing everything with nothing” will remain just an idea, and the cockpits will stay filled.