Would you fly in a pilotless airliner?

Source: BBC

By Katia Moskvitch

Have you ever had a panic attack in mid-flight? Those that have will tell you it’s not fun. And there are plenty of reasons that make people panic. Some of them – irrationally so – fixate on the state of the pilot. Are they tired? Stressed? Paying enough attention?

Would these people feel any better if we could get rid of pilots altogether?

The technology already seems to be there – drones are not a particularly new invention. Armies use drones the size of aeroplanes in war zones, where they are controlled remotely or loiter flying a pattern. Even helicopters can be pilotless, like the K-MAX, which is as big as a standard helicopter, and delivers aid supplies with stunning precision to dangerous locations.

Aeroplane accidents are rare today, but when they happen, they are getting harder and harder to solve, says Tim Robinson, editor-in-chief of the Royal Aeronautical Society’s magazine Aerospace. That’s why investigations often focus on ‘human factors’, identifying psychological and physiological issues as a probable cause.

(Credit US DoD/Wikimedia)

Kaman’s KMax helicopter has carried out trials without a pilot in the cockpit (Credit US DoD/Wikimedia)

“So with pilots relying on autopilots for 95% of today’s flights, the argument goes, why not make the final 5% – take-off and landing – automated?” says Robinson. “Computers fly ultra-precise, repeatable trajectories, do not fly drunk, do not get tired, do not get distracted and so the thinking goes could be safer than human pilots in the future.”

He says that in a debate at the society earlier this year, with pilots, engineers, scientists and airline representatives debating autonomous planes, the motion ‘there will be no need for pilots in 40 years’ was carried by approximately 60 votes to 40.

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