Self-Flying Airliners May Soon Become Reality

Jul 2, 2017

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The advent of artificial intelligence has changed the way we approach and solve some of today’s biggest transportation-related challenges, one of which is to raise industry safety standards. At the forefront of that push for improvement are tech companies such as Google and Uber, working on projects from developing self-driving cars to automating air traffic control. Recently, Boeing announced that it, too, will be jumping on the AI bandwagon, but this time for a slightly different reason — global pilot shortage.

As demand for air travel rises, the need for more pilots has become a pressing issue, outpacing airlines’ ability to hire and train pilots — a process that can take up to two years. This has led the world’s biggest aircraft manufacturer to explore self-flying technology, potentially reducing the number of pilots required on a long-haul passenger flight from five to three or two.

Four or more pilots are often needed for long-haul flights, especially on long-range aircraft such as this Boeing 777-200LR. Image courtesy of Air Canada

“When I look at the future, I see a need for 41,000 commercial jet airplanes over the course of the next 20 years. And that means we are going to need something like 617,000 more pilots — that’s a lot of pilots,” said Mike Sinnett, Boeing’s vice president for product development. “One of the ways that may be solved is by having some type of autonomous behavior.”

While commercial airliners already have the ability to take off, cruise and land with minimal pilot intervention, Boeing is keen to develop the technology to allow minimal human interaction across the entire flight. The idea may seem far-fetched to many, but Sinnett, a pilot himself, believes that “the basic building blocks of the technology clearly are available.”

For this self-flying technology to really take off, it will first have to comply with the strict aviation regulations that dictate aviation safety. To this end, Boeing will use its advanced cockpit simulators to build and test self-flying algorithms this summer. If all goes well, the aircraft manufacturer may implement it on an actual flying aircraft as soon as some time next year.

H/T: The Independent

Featured image of a Boeing 787 cockpit courtesy of Nick via Flickr.

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