Will Autopilot Replace Human Pilots?
There’s a lot of talk about high-tech autopilots and unmanned aircraft in aviation news. The technologies are getting better every year, and some futurists even claim that demand for pilots is going to plummet in the upcoming years.
But they are still some serious arguments to be made that pilots are vital for flight, and the discussions are ongoing. This article will explore why human pilots are unlikely to be replaced by autopilot systems.
What are autopilots?
The first autopilot was implemented in 1912. It was a relatively simple device that connected the gyroscopic and altitude indicators. Simply put, it allowed the aircraft to stay straight on its course directed by the compass without the pilots’ intervention.
However, autopilots received more public attention only in 1914 when Lawrence Sperry demonstrated the technology at the Paris aviation safety contest. The development of autopilots was on a halt for fifteen years due to the world war.
In 1930 the further development of autopilot systems was extensively funded by the air forces of the United States and the United Kingdom. These systems gave an advantage to their bombers during world war two.
Modern auto flight control systems (AFCS) are implemented in most commercial aircraft and can achieve much more than flying the plane in a straight line. They help with take-off, landing, climb, descent, and cruising.
Contemporary autopilots, as opposed to the first ones, are now based on software systems that make complicated calculations to keep the airplane flying not only safely but also more economically.
With planes gathering more and more data, such as GPS, altitude, and speed, the autopilots are becoming better at their tasks. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) even requires all planes to use autopilots when flying above 29,000 feet.
Their reasoning is that autopilots greatly help with traffic control. Airlines, on the other hand, also have an incentive to promote the usage of autopilots. as they not only increase the safety of air travel but also increase fuel efficiency.
The estimates vary, but it’s safe to assume that most commercial flights today use autopilots for at least 75 percent of the flight. Some assessments are even claiming that pilots are only flying the plane by themselves only for two percent of the flight.
With such high autopilot usage numbers, it’s natural to ask – why pilots are still needed on planes. And whether (if not when) they will be replaced by autopilots.
Economics of autopilots
Modern autopilots are a complicated piece of technology. For instance, most commercial planes use tens of computers to make constant calculations. If the autopilot system is more advanced, it can include even more technologies.
From inside mechanical parts that control the plane to various outside sensors that can detect some of the surroundings. The cheapest autopilot systems for small planes can cost just a little over 5000 dollars.
However, large commercial planes, such as Boeing 747, should use autopilots that costs tens of millions of dollars if they are likely to replace a human being.
It is simply more economical for an airline to purchase a less advanced autopilot system and hire a pilot. Besides, Pilots have some other serious advantages in an airplane.
Similarly to cruise control in an automobile, the automatic system can only assist the driver in keeping the travel parameters in place. Humans are still in charge of reacting to environmental changes.
But it’s not because modern auto-flight control systems cannot achieve it. In fact, many unmanned aerial vehicles are constantly flying our skies. They mostly serve military or data collection purposes.
Unmanned commercial passenger flights are complicated because of international regulations. There won’t be anyone to take responsibility in case of an emergency. But even if there are no emergencies, passengers on board are unlikely to trust a computer without any human oversight.
Modern autopilots, especially those assisted with artificial intelligence, can take care of some emergencies. For example, plane sensors can detect changed weather conditions and adjust the altitude or speed of the plane accordingly.
There are also reported cases where autopilot was able to stabilize the plane on its own after an engine failure. However, a pilot was needed to successfully land the plane.
The largest worry is electrical failures. The electrical system of an aircraft is built in such a way as to prioritize the most essential functions of an aircraft. The functioning of autopilot, as opposed to lowering the wheels or keeping the engine on, is not a priority.
If the plane’s electrical circuit would get damaged, some indicators or sensors needed for autopilot would become unavailable. A human pilot takeover is necessary in such cases.
Communication with the air traffic control center
Other cases of emergencies are those created by failures in the air traffic control center. While, in theory, some information can be transferred to the plane’s autopilot, most communication happens on a radio.
The pilot is necessary in such cases as only he can make a decision and accept responsibility based on the communication from the air traffic control center.
Even if the autopilot system would be able to accept directions from the air traffic control center, it would simply follow directions blindly.
Pilotless cargo planes
Our discussion here only applies to commercial passenger flights. But cargo planes are more likely to go pilotless in the near future. Firstly, since there is no human life at stake, governments are more likely to allow it with some precautions, such as a dedicated altitude.
The economic incentive is also there as it could save money and improve the delivery time. Several companies, including big names such as Airbus, have already started to develop such technologies. Of course, it will still take a few decades for the aviation industry to reach the needed technological and regulatory changes.
It’s unlikely that human pilots will be replaced by auto-flight control systems in passenger planes. However, cargo planes can see such change in a couple of decades.