This Is Not Your Captain Speaking

This month, for the first time in history, a commercial jet flew across UK airspace piloted by people on the ground rather than in the air. Will this “pilotless” travel become a niche application or will it represent the future for commercial air travel?

The ‘Jetstream’ aircraft in question was part of a £62m UAV project backed by aerospace giants such as BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce. The aircraft flew 500 miles from northern England to Inverness, guided only by National Air Traffic Services personnel thousands of feet below.FE_DA130513pilotless620x413

One of the stated reasons for the project is to allow unmanned aircrafts to operate in environments too dangerous for pilots, such as above forest fires, in extreme weather and situations with poor visibility.

But in the cost conscious world of low cost air travel could we find that pilots in aircraft become a thing of the past?

Proponents of drone technology point to the fact that many aircraft accidents are caused by pilot error and that automated flights could eliminate this. Critics ask whether drones will really be able to reduce this or would they introduce new errors that do not occur at the moment? With the number of ‘air incidents’ being less than 0.001% of flights taken is there really that much room for improvement?

Critics also point out that, while humans may cause some errors, they are often better at recovering from situations that are completely unexpected. Would a drone have been as successful as the famous Captain Sullenberger of US flight 1549, who managed to improvise and guide the plane safely into the Hudson River after a freak bird accident?

Another argument in favour of drone technology is one of cost. Well paid pilots form a significant part of an airline’s overheads and much of this could be eliminated with automated aircraft. The average cost of pilots on a flight is around £14 per passenger per flight. Would this saving be enough to persuade you to fly without a pilot?

Analysts believe that automated aircraft technology could be fully operational in less than 10 years and with the projected value estimated to be worth £33 billion by 2020, you have to surmise that the commercial market is certainly in its sights.

Whether consumers are ready to take a “drone from home” is another matter though. Would you?

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