Are we ready for autonomous planes?

July 16, 2019  - By
Headshot: Tracy Cozzens

Tracy Cozzens

Our cover story this issue is all about autonomous vehicles. Retirees — not usually considered early adopters of technology — are trusting autonomous vehicles to ferry them from point to point using the technology our industry can offer.

We have also used a lot of magazine space to discuss unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, and shown how they are taking on a lot of tasks formerly done by manned pilots or workers, such as aerial mapping or factory inspections.

So is the idea of an autonomous plane such a stretch?

At June’s Paris Air Show, Christian Scherer, chief commercial officer for Airbus, told the Associated Press that his company already has the technology to fly passenger planes without pilots.

Scherer also said in the AP interview that Airbus hopes to be selling hybrid or electric passenger jets by around 2035.

Airbus already has “the technology for autonomous flying.”

But having the tech is one thing. Winning over regulators and potential travelers is quite another.

“When can we introduce it in large commercial aircraft? That is a matter we are discussing with regulators and customers, but technology-wise, we don’t see a hurdle,” Scherer said.

In fact, in a new study, seven out of 10 people say they would be willing to travel in an unpiloted plane at some point in their lifetime. The survey was conducted by U.S. software firm Ansys, which is working to provide digital replicas of how planes and cars react in different situations.

Passengers would be more willing to embrace automation if firms could show that a computer would react in the best and quickest way if anything unexpected happens.

But are we there yet? Michael Wiggins, the chairman of the aeronautical science department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, addressed the autonomous-flight adoption question for the New York Times.

“From what I see, could it happen in the distant future? I think it probably could. Will it happen in the near future? I don’t think so,” Wiggins said. “Right now, any progress toward that area should be done very slowly, very measured and only after a bunch of research with results that suggest we should do that.”

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About the Author: Tracy Cozzens

Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.