Feb 3, 2023 - Technology

Fully autonomous passenger planes are inching closer to takeoff

Illustration of a plane with a contrail made of binary numbers.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The world's biggest commercial aircraft makers seem increasingly convinced that autonomous passenger flight is a question of when, not if.

Where it stands: Flying today's high-tech passenger jets is often a matter of setting up and overseeing their autopilot and other automated systems — but we're not yet at a point where computer systems can entirely replace human pilots.

Driving the news: "Autonomy is going to come to all of the airplanes eventually," Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun told Bloomberg TV at an event this week marking the delivery of the last commercial 747.

  • "The future of autonomy is real" for civil aviation, he added.
  • Boeing rival Airbus, meanwhile, has been testing a suite of advanced autonomous flight systems it's calling DragonFly.

Details: DragonFly is designed to enable automatic landings in bad weather, handle in-flight emergencies (like an incapacitated human pilot), and ease pilots' workload while taxiing around complicated airports.

Meanwhile: A California startup called Xwing — shoutout to Star Wars fans everywhere — is working on gate-to-gate autonomous cargo flights using modified Cessna Grand Caravans remotely overseen by staffers on the ground.

  • Xwing recently landed a contract to work alongside the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), NASA and others to research how to best integrate autonomous aircraft into complex airspace.
  • A similar startup, Natilus, just inked a deal to sell 20 remotely flown cargo planes to Ameriflight, which flies packages for UPS, FedEx and others.

The intrigue: Nobody's suggesting human pilots will entirely disappear from passenger aircraft flight decks anytime soon.

  • Instead, the idea is that increased automation could lead the FAA to relax a rule requiring two pilots for many commercial flights.
  • But pilots are pushing back against even that — in part over safety fears, and in part because of the potential risk to their livelihoods.
  • "A minimum two-person flight crew is necessary to manage the flight deck workload and protect against the potential incapacitation of one pilot," reads an info page from the Air Line Pilots Association, International, a pilot union.

Yes, but: Airlines love anything that saves them money — and having to pay one fewer pilot for every flight would do exactly that.

  • Meanwhile, others predict that the rise of autonomous flight technology will create all manner of new jobs to support such systems, as Joann has reported.

What's next: As Xwing's and Natilus' progress shows, it's likely that the next generation of autonomous systems will first prove their mettle in cargo operations before coming to passenger aircraft.

The bottom line: Solving the technological hurdles of autonomous flight is one thing. Convincing people to fly aboard an aircraft with one or no human pilots is an entirely different matter.

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