Avionics

Drop the pilot

There will be resistance, but crewless planes are on their way

LAST YEAR Boeing’s Pilot Outlook report estimated that civil aviation will require 790,000 new commercial pilots over the next two decades. Of those, 261,000 will be needed in Asia and 206,000 in North America. One approach to this problem is to open more flight schools. An alternative is to need fewer pilots. And that requires better technology.

The first autopilot was invented surprisingly early in the history of aviation, in 1912, less than a decade after the Wright brothers’ original flight. It used a gyroscope and altimeter to operate a plane’s control surfaces to keep it flying straight and level. Since then, autopilots have evolved into flight-management systems that can run almost every part of an aeroplane’s journey except taxiing and take-off, and even those are starting to come under automatic control. As recent events have shown, flight-management systems are still not good enough to be trusted completely when lives are at stake. But in a world where automated drones such as America’s Global Hawk reconnaissance vehicle routinely fly military missions, and self-driving vehicles are talked of as if they were just around the corner, the question of how large a civilian flight crew needs to be is clearly open for debate.

It is also a pertinent question for the armed forces. In particular, pilotless aircraft can be sent on missions too dangerous for people, and possibly ones that piloted craft would…