Oct 6, 2017

Boeing buys into automated aircraft technology company to deal with scarce, and costly pilots

Let's not beat around the bush, Boeing is investing in getting rid of pilots to solve a growing shortage of them

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

An Aurora auto electric sky taxi graphic to remind us that four engines may not be excessive after all

The call from one of Plane Talking’s editorial referee pilots was blunt. “Now that the airlines won’t pay decent rates and conditions, Boeing is getting into the technology that can do away with them altogether.”

A few extra angry words have been left out. But the conversation follows on yesterday’s post about Airbus firing up the full scale propulsion system for an automated ‘fixed route’ sky taxi.

Boeing is buying Aurora Flight Sciences, a maker of drones and aviation parts, in an avowed bid to bring increased automation to airliners, military drones and even personal air taxis, like its rivals in Europe.

The official statements quoted in this CNN report haven’t made it to the outer darkness of Australia just yet, but the American story is authoritative and sourced to identified Boeing officials.

As reported Boeing said as recently as June that it would explore automation for commercial aircraft. The plans came in response to concerns that the industry would experience a shortage of pilots in the near future that would hamper the growth of world air travel. Boeing had estimated that the industry will need 637,000 pilots over the next 20 years.

This is of course, just part of the challenges that surging demand is creating for civil aviation.  Another critical component is airspace availability, and enough runways.

To the extent that technological developments might allow vertical takeoffs and landings, the runway issue might be ‘eased’. Better rapid surface transport will also take away some of the pressure where it is feasible to invest in new rail or maglev technology, or the claustrophobic delights of hyperloop tubes.

The framework for most automated ‘driverless’ car projects also involves the close spacing of vehicles, to the point where cloverleaf type motorway graded separations are a thing of the past, and you just shut your eyes while hurtling with millimetres to spare through multilaned right angled intersections confident that Windows for Traffic Version Two Million will never have a bloody wall of death moment.

That same theoretically feasible close spacing technique could radically lift the carrying capacity of air corridors, if they were needed at all.

There is a brave new ‘eyes shut tight’ world of travel delights awaiting us, or our descendants, sometime in the coming decades. Whether we like it or not.


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11 thoughts on “Boeing buys into automated aircraft technology company to deal with scarce, and costly pilots

  1. JW (aka James Wilson)

    The technological barriers to pilotless commercial aircraft might be coming down, but I suspect the regulatory barriers will be far more difficult to overcome. Given the length of time it takes ICAO and its Member States to develop and implement the smallest of regulatory changes, I doubt we’ll see passenger-carrying pilotless aircraft in commercial use any time soon.

  2. Giant Bird

    We already have extensive aircraft automation to deal with the routine, normal and expected. I thought that pilots were trained to deal with the abnormal, unexpected and unanticipated. Like un-contained engine failure, fuel system failure, simultaneous extreme weather and intersecting runway crash removing planned alternatives. Is this going to be the difference between LCC and full service in the future. One you die when something unexpected does wrong and the other you live.

    1. comet

      Yes, imagine QF32 being handled by a computer, which would attempt to look after the other flight computers that had already entered Alternate Law.

  3. Giant Bird

    In my opinion the only argument you need against fully automated flight are a few words. Norfolk Island and Mildura. If you cannot make regulations to avoid situations like these how can you ever have fully automated flight.

    1. Roger Clifton

      Assuming that automatic pilots will be so much faster and better at negotiating avoidance paths in the event of colliding trajectories, there may be no longer any need to keep such aircraft in corridors at all. Even fixed flight levels may no longer be so critical.

      Given that the automated system would be able to handle many more inflows of information than the human, we have the opportunity to provide it with more senses. I like the idea of an infrared scanner, so that the system can see wind shears ahead and the vortex trail of the aircraft just ahead.

      Now that the human in the cockpit has so little to do (the dog in the other seat won’t let him), perhaps the automatic system could feed him fictitious responsiveness to keep him awake until a real problem justifies him taking over control.

      1. Dan Dair

        Roger Clifton,
        I have three words to proffer in your general-direction;
        Malicious hackers (and) terrorists.!

        I’m reasonably certain that the systems you advocate could eventually be capable of doing a more-efficient job of managing aircraft movements than the current scheme,
        whether that be negotiating the crowded airspace around the European capitals like London, Paris & Amsterdam,
        or it being the ability to prevent internal flights over Australia getting lost & completely disappearing from the current system for three hours.?

        The problem I have with more & more automation is not that of a ‘Luddite’ wishing for less technology, but a deep concern that the more people relinquish control over to ‘the machine’,
        the more we put ourselves INTO harms way, should a malicious group or individual gain access/control of that system.? (a fictional example of the type being Die Hard 2)

        The ‘B-side’ of the argument is that once you go down that road, it’s almost impossible to go back to a ‘manual’ system in any kind of emergency, simply because there are no-longer enough staff on duty to actually perform manual-ATC.?
        If systems were integrated across Europe or the USA & there was a serious ‘brown-out’ (for example, whether natural, technical or terrorist-related), how would aircraft already in the air, successfully avoid eachother AND find a suitable place to land with no automated ATC & no ground-based guidance system.?

  4. George Glass

    Good grief.Here we go again.It isnt going to happen.There is so much wrong with this that only people completely divorced from the real time operational world would think this is possible. I’m beginning to believe in fake news.

    1. Dan Dair

      People said that practical electric vehicles were impossible, but now they (& their hybrid cousins) are all around us.!
      People said that self-driving cars were science-fiction
      & here we are on the cusp of it becoming a reality.!

      I am certainly not an advocate of pilotless aircraft, as my previous contributions will attest,
      but simply saying “It isn’t going to happen”, isn’t going to stop people from trying to make it happen.

      IMO there are still a huge number of practical & technological problems to overcome and getting that resolved doesn’t begin to overcome the human-factors I referred to in my earlier posting.?

      But my reservations on these pages
      aren’t going to stop other people, with a different vision, working towards making that vision a reality.?

      1. Tango

        Nope, you might as yell stop to a hard of stampeding Wildebeats!

        But read my non reply post

  5. Tango

    Boeing does not need Aurora for automated flight.

    If you follow this, you will see that there is a D8 (not the dozer) proposal for a MOM/NMA aircraft.

    That is the gold Boeing is after.

    That does not mean Boeing is not working on it, it will happen some day, but that days is some time down the road.

    They just opened up the NMA project office and the D8 fits right in that

    1. Tango

      Shame we don’t have an edit fore dumb mistakes.

      2nd to the last refers to pilot free cockpits that Boeing is working on (but then there has been huge automation for a long time, a lot that should have been regulated in my opinion such as a universal agreement on auto throttle ops)

      Then goes back to the D8 in the final sentence.

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