David Learmount during a BBC interview

A prediction that pilotless airliners can and even will be in growing use by 2030 has been made by Flightglobal air safety writer David Learmount.

It’s an important call, however confronting many, including this writer, may find it.

And it comes from an authoritative writer on the perils of automation in cockpits today, who has long argued that airliners are put at risk by over reliance on automation in today’s jets by pilots who are inadequately trained in how to identify computer cockpit failures and simultaneously initiate the ‘upset recovery’ actions needed to prevent a tragedy.

(Let me add here the view that was also put to a recent Senate inquiry into airline safety and pilot training, that non-technically competent airline managements increasingly fall for the cost saving lure of investing less into real pilot skills because they believe what the sellers of automation tell them, that nothing can go wrong go wrong go wrong followed by the CVR recording the sound of an impact killing hundreds of passengers.)

This is how Learmount’s article starts:

The pilotless airliner is no longer unthinkable. It is just a matter of time before airliners have one pilot, and soon after that they will have none.

The first one-pilot commercial air transport aircraft will be freighters, and that sector will almost certainly blaze the trail to the pilotless passenger aircraft. That will be a cockpitless airliner in which first class passengers will occupy the window seats at the sharp end.

The aircraft might have a pilot standing by for emergencies, but s/he will be back at base.

He makes some telling comparisons with developments in air traffic control technology.

The main barrier to pilotless commercial aircraft operation is the primitive air traffic control system we have at present. Although controllers are provided with predictive as well as actual traffic information now, the system is completely human-driven. From about 2020 this will begin to change, and by 2030 controllers will not control traffic, they will be available in case something anomalous happens. That’s like the airline pilot’s job has been for some time, but air traffic management is about 30 years behind onboard systems.

When Europe’s SESAR and the USA’s NextGen ATM systems have been fully up and running for a few years, aeroplanes will carry out their own trajectory management and their own traffic separation. The rest of the world is preparing to go down the same path. Pilots’ and controllers’ jobs as they are today will be redundant.

This is how Learmount envisages regular operations. (As do others, he is not alone, but his voice is more widely heard.)

Imagine an airline crewroom in 2030. The airline has, say, 300 aeroplanes, but only about 50 pilots. About ten of these will be on duty in the crewroom at any one time. There they have several cockpit-like interfaces that can link them electronically to any of the fleet that’s airborne at the time. They have ten engine and systems engineers to help them. On the rare occasion that something anomalous occurs on an aeroplane, an alert sounds and all the flight and systems data for that aircraft are made available on the interface in real time, together with a systems diagnostic report. They can intervene as effectively as they could have done in the aircraft.

The aircraft commander will be the Purser – the senior cabin crew member – and the pilot back at base will be the driver.

While the trajectory of technologocal innovation and reliability supports Learmount, so does the certainy that within a decade reliance on the ‘cloud’ will destroy entire companies, come a ‘cloudless’ day.  It will swallow without accountability vast chunks of privately strored data.  And it could destroy airliners, hundreds of lives at a time, just as systems like Sabre and Amadeus famously wreak havoc on airlines like Virgin Australia and Qantas, because they are routinely incapable of delivering the services the airlines pay for, and depend upon.

There is much to be done before trust is generated by reliability in such future automation, but it will come, as it has to an increasing number of metro rail systems around the world.

Learmount invites a discussion.  Please join that discussion on his blog, but if you feel so inclined, perhaps also copy your comment here.

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