Autonomous flight: When will pilotless aircraft be cleared for takeoff?

Airlines are keen to start using autonomous commercial aircraft to reduce flight crew costs and address pilot shortages

Airlines worldwide have been throttling their schedules and cancelling flights, many at the last minute, despite the surge in demand from the public to fly, and the summer season peak in the western hemisphere. Why is this happening?

Before the pandemic hit, commercial aviation was already coming under pressure over labour shortages, particularly for pilots. Both Boeing and Airbus had substantial order backlogs, and one industry assessment predicted that a further 34,000 pilots worldwide would be required by 2025. The cohort of senior pilots were nearing retirement age, and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) had raised the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65 to ease the transition for the industry. In the United States, republican senator Lindsey Graham is reputedly drafting a Bill to raise the mandatory retirement age in the US to 67.

When the pandemic hit, uncertainty about its duration led many airlines to furlough or even lay off staff, including pilots. Former airline employees had little option but to search for employment elsewhere. Many apparently have done so, and now have not only interesting new jobs with reasonable pay but also a better work-life balance: more time to see family and friends, less time in remote hotel rooms, and less stress from incessant travel and time zone changes.

Unlike the September 11th crisis across the industry in 2001, interest in flying did not wane during the pandemic. Rather, quarantine requirements and mandatory lockdowns temporarily imposed restrictions. As the pandemic eased, the pent-up demand predictably surged. However, airlines have met considerable resistance in trying to re-hire staff whom they laid off during the pandemic. Some have left the industry behind. Meanwhile, most flying schools reduced their cadet intake during the pandemic.

Some start-ups are exploiting the systemic issue, and Airbus and Boeing are also innovating. If the car industry is moving towards autonomous vehicles, and the space industry has already done so (SpaceX’s manned vehicles are fully autonomous), can commercial aircraft become autonomous? Companies such as Xwing and Reliable Robotics in the Bay Area in California, and Merlin Labs in Boston, believe so. Meanwhile, Airbus has demonstrated a system for an Airbus 350 airliner, which can taxi, take off and land autonomously. Boeing has autonomous military systems (such as its Loyal Wingman fighter programme) but has yet to announce a fully autonomous civilian system.

While various start-ups are experimenting with autonomous operations for brand new designs for electric and taxi aircraft, Xwing, Reliable Robotics and Merlin Labs observe that regulatory requirements make it more prudent to start with a proven aircraft type, and convert it to autonomous operation. XWing and Reliable Robotics are using Cessna Caravans while Merlin Labs is focusing on the Beechcraft King Air, both types being workhorses of light aviation. All three have demonstrated autonomous operation from taxi, take-off, flight and landing, albeit with a pilot on board ready to take over should the system fail.

In the case of Xwing and Reliable Robotics, communications with air traffic control are carried out by an operator on the ground. The operator does not fly the aircraft directly, and thus does not handle the “stick” or the throttles or other controls. Rather the operator relays instructions to the autonomous aircraft using a simple graphic interface, instructing the aircraft where to position itself. The operator does not need to know how to actually fly an aircraft, take off or land. In principle, the operator thus does not need to be a fully-trained pilot but only familiar with air traffic control procedures. In the case of Merlin Labs, the team are experimenting with voice recognition and generation, to allow the autonomous system to directly interact with air traffic control.

The main initial market for the three start-ups is short-haul cargo flights. FedEx, UPS, DHL and Amazon are observing or becoming directly involved. The major airlines’ demand for pilots is contracting the pool of cargo pilots. Furthermore, since a pilot is typically certified for just a single aircraft type at a time, autonomous operations would offer much more flexibility since different aircraft types can be used on a day-to-day basis as cargo traffic demands.

When will autonomous operations replace the pilots in the cockpit? Boeing lost reputation when its poorly designed automation caused two crashes of its new flagship B737 MAX type, and appears to be proceeding cautiously. Autonomous operations would require resilient aircraft communications worldwide — the mysterious disappearance of Air Malaysia flight MH370 in 2014 illustrates the current gap in coverage. Could an autonomous aircraft land safely in a river after a multiple engine failure immediately after take-off, as Capt Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger managed to do in 2009 when he ditched his stricken US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson? Conceivably, in fact, yes — for not only this but also other emergencies.

Autonomous commercial aircraft are coming and will be commercially attractive, reducing flight crew costs, addressing pilot shortages and adding flexibility. Paradoxically, the current research and development work places even more stress on the industry’s shortage of pilots: will school leavers really consider becoming a pilot, knowing that autonomous operations will almost certainly happen at some point during their career?