Worldwide: Plane manufacturers including Airbus and Boeing are aiming to develop artificial intelligence that could one day mean teaching computers to fly planes autonomously.
Currently, commercial flights commonly have at least two pilots in the cockpit—a common practice for several decades. As such, completely autonomous planes might be some time away.
Chief technology officer of Airbus Paul Eremenko has said that the company is developing autonomous aircraft and technologies that will allow a single pilot to operate commercial jetliners.
“The more disruptive approach is to say maybe we can reduce the crew needs for our future aircraft. We are pursuing single-pilot operation as a potential option and a lot of the technologies needed to make that happen have also put us on the path towards unpiloted operation,” said Mr Eremenko in a recent interview with Bloomberg Television.
In addition to autonomous aviation technology being in its preliminary stages, there is also currently no aircraft certified for a single pilot or pilotless flight. Passengers (or their insurers or carriers) might also prove hesitant to accept such technology.
The company is also exploring technologies that will bring more automation to the cockpit of planes that could help resolve the shortage of pilots. This is especially important in emerging markets such as China, which is on track to become the world’s biggest aviation market in less than a decade. Mr Eremenko added that discussions are being held with Chinese companies such as Baidu to find ways to apply self-driving vehicles to the aviation industry.
With an estimated 637,000 pilots needed to fly commercial aircraft globally in the next two decades according to Boeing, Mr Eremenko said that the industry needs to find ways to produce more cockpit crew as only 200,000 pilots have been trained since the start of the aviation industry.
The aerospace industry is seeing a similar trend as the car market, where automakers are investing in or acquiring autonomous driving companies. The venture arm of aircraft manufacturer Boeing, HorizonX, recently acquired Near Earth Autonomy and Aurora Flight Sciences, which specialise in self-driving vehicle technology and autonomous aircraft systems respectively.