Mar 22, 2022 - Economy

The next generation of aircraft will leave pilots on the ground

Illustration of a pilot uniform standing with no pilot inside it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The job of an airplane pilot may one day involve “flying” multiple aircraft at once without ever leaving the ground, according to the Aerospace Industries Association.

Why it matters: Aviation is about to undergo a huge transformation. Over the next decade or two, autonomous aircraft will become ubiquitous, taking on industrial jobs that are too difficult for humans and shuttling cargo among logistics hubs.

  • Depending on public acceptance, these "roboplanes" could also be ferrying passengers across cities.

What's happening: The market for self-flying aircraft is expected to grow 25% per year to a total of $325 billion between now and 2040, according to new research by AIA and Avascent, an aviation consultancy.

  • That includes everything from vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (VTOLs) — which rise like a helicopter and fly like a plane — to small turboprops and regional jets, all the way up to larger cargo and passenger planes.
  • Dozens of startups have raised money — amounting to about $7 billion so far — via private investors or public SPAC deals to advance their autonomous flight endeavors.
  • Players include Boeing-backed Wisk Aero, Xwing, Reliable Robotics and Kitty Hawk.
  • Electric VTOL manufacturers like Joby Aviation, Archer and Lilium initially plan to launch air taxi services with human pilots — but one day plan to remove the pilots.

Yes, but: "When we say fully autonomous, it's not as if these planes will have no humans involved," Avascent's Jay Carmel, a co-author of the report, tells Axios.

  • "It's important to remember that it's really a shift in how humans are interacting with the plane," he says. "The human is going to be much more of an observer, in a management state."
  • "There's nothing 'unmanned' about autonomous flight," adds co-author Josh Pavluk.
  • He projects that as many as 100,000 jobs will be created to support autonomous aviation by 2040, in fields like engineering, software, operations and logistics.

Here's how it's likely to play out: At first, autonomous aircraft will be used for industrial jobs that AIA calls "dull, dirty and dangerous" — fighting forest fires, inspecting infrastructure, surveying crops or providing Wi-Fi hot spots in disaster zones.

  • Cargo applications — like delivering goods to warehouses and stores — will come next. Small aircraft might carry up to 3,000 pounds, with the potential for larger planes hauling much heavier payloads.
  • Passenger air taxis will come later, "most likely not arriving at scale until at least well into the next decade," says AIA.
  • "Public acceptance will play a huge role in this," says Carmel. "Even if the tech will be ready, will the public be comfortable with it?"

Where it stands: Today's aircraft are already heavily automated. As they perform mundane flying tasks, the pilot is always supervising and retains critical decision-making responsibility.

  • Over time, pilots are expected to delegate more tasks and decisions to the aircraft, eventually moving from the cockpit to the ground to fly by remote control — first one plane at a time, and then multiple aircraft simultaneously.

The catch: Manufacturers must demonstrate that their automated systems meet the FAA's current safety standards.

  • The agency is already thinking about where VTOL air taxis and cargo shuttles might land, though, issuing engineering guidance earlier this month for the design of so-called vertiports.
  • "It's more of a regulatory issue than a technical issue," says aviation specialist Sergio Cecutta, a partner at SMG Consulting. "We can fly autonomously right now."


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