The technology for unmanned aircraft has long been available in principle," announced the then head of german air traffic control, klaus-dieter scheurle, with conviction just under four years ago.
Not least, drone technology has accelerated the development that the human factor no longer appears to be completely indispensable, even on board modern commercial aircraft. The aircraft industry, and with it the regulatory authorities and the airlines, are looking for ways to gradually make the industry’s most expensive employees, the pilots, superfluous and, in the long term, to replace them with artificial intelligence.
In the "project connect," airbus wants to make extreme long-distance flights possible for a two-person crew by having the aircraft piloted and monitored by only one person for long periods of time thanks to technical support. One or the other could take a break outside the cockpit, making longer flight times possible. According to media reports, cathay pacific airways could carry out such flights with an airbus A350 as early as 2025, thus saving the previously obligatory third person in the cockpit.
But that is by no means the end of the story, because most commercial aircraft already have only two pilots. The formerly obligatory flight engineer is long gone and for a long time the car pilot controls the aircraft. "We will certainly see the cockpit with one pilot in the next 30 years," says aviation consultant gerald wissel of airborne. For smaller jets with up to eleven passengers, the single pilot is already a reality.
Step by step, the presence will also be reduced in the large airliners and transferred to human controllers on the ground, wissel expects. Before this can happen, data transfer times must be shortened and systems must be effectively protected against attacks. But the expert warns against placing flying solely in the responsibility of a control computer.
The pilots are alarmed and are bringing weighty counter-arguments into the discussion via the international associations and bodies. "We do not believe that safety will increase if pilots are dispensed with. And it won’t be any cheaper," says max scheck, a drone expert at the german cockpit association (VC).
The european pilots’ association ECA warns of conversion problems in the entire training system and points to human skills for error analysis and problem-solving competence in the team. From the association’s point of view, the crew members pruning and checking each other are also the last line against hacker attacks and misconstructions like in the youngest issue of the boeing 737-max.
VC representative scheck also calls for a new kind of safety culture when assessing aircraft accidents. He points to nasa studies according to which irregularities occurred in every fifth flight, which were handled by the crews in many millions of cases. These events had to be taken into account as well as the few mistakes made.
The ECA also points to instances where pilots alone have saved the aircraft and the lives of passengers. The most famous is certainly the ditching of an airbus A320 on the hudson river near new york by captain chesley B. Sullenberger in 2009. On the other hand, in march 2015, a controller on the ground very likely prevented the deaths of 150 people when a mentally ill co-pilot tried to crash a germanwings jet into the french alps. The man had locked his captain out of the cockpit.
Lufthansa has so far kept a low profile on the new concepts. Certification is a matter for the manufacturers in cooperation with the regulatory authorities, says a spokeswoman in frankfurt. The company is always open to advice and comments, but is neither involved in this matter nor part of the project.
The major unknown in the plans remains the attitude of the customers, who so far still tend to refuse to entrust their lives to a machine. Former air traffic control chief scheurle, however, considered a fundamental change possible as early as 2018. "The only obstacle to widespread automation is the concern of the airlines, which fear for the acceptance of their passengers if there is no longer a pilot sitting in the cockpit at the front."However, society is moving toward automated mobility in the car. "If it works there, confidence in unmanned aircraft will also grow."