Will Drones Replace Commercial Pilots?

Last updated January 21st, 2020
Two pilots in a cockpit

So, you show up at the airport and you learn that the plane you are about to board is going to be piloted by a robot or artificial intelligence.

What do you do in this situation?

Get on board? Or walk away?

In 2017, half of air travellers surveyed said they would walk away, even if the ticket price was slashed significantly.

People simply don’t see the need for putting robots in the cockpit when modern pilots are already doing such a good job that any air accident makes the front page news based on rarity alone.

Or, maybe the truth is that people simply don’t trust technology.

It’s not that there hasn’t been any issues with human pilots.

Stories of pilot drunkenness, rants, distractions, and fights, although rare, are clear reminders that pilots are not some celestial beings delivered from on high, but humans like you and me.

Not every pilot is going to be a disaster-averting pilot like Capt Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.

Sometimes, human error and failings are going to factor in and cause problems. That’s to be expected.

But software has the potential to change all that; equipping every plane with an extremely experience guidance system that is always learning more with each flight and experience.

The present reality is not that far off from this scenario, actually. On many flights today, autopilot systems already control the plane for almost all of the flight.

When visibility is poor, hindering the human pilot’s ability to see and judge situations correctly, software is able to intervene and carry out the most difficult of landings.

Extending this trend even further, there is a new generation of software pilots, developed for self-flying vehicles or drones, and these will soon have logged more flying hours than all humans have ever in aviation’s storied history.

By combining this depth of experience with enormous amounts of flight data, drone-control software stand perfectly poised to quickly become the most experienced pilots in the world.

This all poses the question…will drones, or drone tech, replace pilots?

Drones that Fly Themselves

Drones today come in many shapes and sizes.

We have the tiny quadcopters that have taken over the urban skies, delivery drones that are capable of delivering goods, as well as missile-firing winged planes and seven ton aircrafts capable of staying in the air for up to 36 hours or longer.

Things have come a long way from when drones were first introduced. Back then the only option which drones had in order to fly was to be controlled remotely by a human pilot.

Any way you look at, whether remotely or not, a pilot was involved.

The drone had to be in constant communication with the pilot for every bit of activity.

Today, many drone models are becoming less reliant on their pilots to carry out tasks. Drones are now able to fly themselves along human-defined routes, leaving pilots to sit back and marvel — or control the camera as needed to capture the best footage.

Lots of effort is being made across the board, involving businesses, researchers, and military organizations, to carry this growing drone expertise over to more complex aircrafts.

For example, swarms of drones are being developed which will not need dozens of humans to control them. And they would be able to carry out maneuvers and tasks that human controllers could never be able to handle.

All these count as flight experience that can be replicated across any software being designed specifically to pilot aircraft.

Where Does that Place Pilot Experience?

The main qualification that pilots bring is their experience.

Even in situations where you wish to fly a small plane for personal or non-commercial purposes, you are still required to accumulate 40 hours of flying instruction before becoming eligible for a private pilot’s license.

Commercial airlines take it further; you need at least 1000 hours of flight rigorous flight instruction before becoming eligible to serve as a co-pilot.

Software on the other hand can make it possible that every single flight comes equipped with the same level of experience of “Capt Sully”, if not more.

A popular software pilot system in use in many aircraft at once could gain more flight experience with each passing day than a human could accumulate in a year.

It makes no sense to hand over the reins to machines just yet, of course.

But by giving software more tasks over time, we could reach a point where we would have maximized the potential which computers have to eliminate the shortcomings of human experience.

Training and Testing Aircraft to Fly on Their Own

Unlike you and I, computer software will follow sets of instructions the same way every single time.

This consistency allows developers to create instructions, test reactions, and refine aircraft responses to the point where errors are all but erased.

For example, it is by testing and refining that developers can ensure that an autonomous drone does not mistake the planet Venus for an oncoming jet and go into a steep dive to avoid a crash.

And then there is the advantage that comes with scale.

Rather than having to teach thousands of individual pilots new skills, software piloted aircrafts would only require downloading updated software.

Of course, the system would require the most rigorous of testing — in both real life situations and simulations — before it could be deemed experienced enough to pilot boarded aircraft.

There would also need to be proofing against cyberattacks.

But once all that is cleared up and all boxes are checked, we would have airplanes that are not susceptible to distractions, disorientations, fatigue, and other human impairments that can potentially cause problems when a human is in charge.

Conclusion

The rate at which drone technology advances makes it likely that experienced pilot software will be readily available sooner rather than later.

The biggest barrier then, as it is now, will be psychological rather than technical.

Many people may not want to entrust their lives to a drone.

Maybe that might change when they are properly educated on the number of flying hours these drones would have — possibly thousands more than the most experienced human pilot.

Or maybe not.

It all depends.

Self-driving cars are already well on their way towards psychological acceptance. And that will only get better as more people get to come across these on the roads every day.

Autonomous drones might have a harder time getting accepted as “normal”. Not only are they rarer to come across, the stakes they present are also higher.

Only time will tell.

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