Unpiloted, automated passenger aircraft: coming to an airport near you

By John Keller

Posted by John Keller

Commercial airliners may be on the verge of a transformation every bit as significant as the switch from propeller to jet power, and once again likely will demonstrate the ability of air passengers to adapt quickly to new technologies that many say they will never accept.

What I'm talking about is the likely future of unpiloted, automated passenger aircraft . Yeah, yeah, I've heard it before -- nobody will fly on a plane without a human pilot. We've all heard the joke about the automated passenger aircraft on which nothing can go wrong ... go wrong ... go wrong.

Yet while it's true that passengers want to get to their destinations safely and with peace of mind, what the unpiloted passenger aircraft skeptics underestimate is how much passengers want to get to their destinations. Period. Get 'em where they want to go, when they want to get there, and they'll adapt.

Case in point: the Boeing 707 jetliner. The 707, developed in the 1950s, was one of the first commercially successful passenger jets, and dominated commercial aviation during the 1960s and into the '70s. When its design first went onto the drawing boards, nay-sayers said passengers would never board an aircraft that didn't have propellers.

Those in the aviation industry who believed this put their money behind other passenger aircraft designs of the day, such as the three-tailed Lockheed Constellation . Quick show of hands: how many remember the 707, and how many remember the Constellation? I thought so. Some of the first 707 passengers may have been a little nervous about seeing no propellers on the wings, but evidently that didn't last long.

We'll see the same thing when we see the first unpiloted passenger jets, and that could be sooner than you think. New Scientist has a story out online this week entitled Drone alone: how airliners may lose their pilots . It points out research projects on both sides of the Atlantic to find ways for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to share civil airspace with passenger jets.

It's only a matter of time, the article points out, before researchers can find a way for UAVs to share airspace with passenger jets , which will lead to unpiloted cargo aircraft, and finally to unpiloted passenger aircraft. Would you as a passenger fly in a plane without a pilot?

Let me tell you, if this approach led to fewer delays at the airport, I'd be on unpiloted planes in a heartbeat. I'm betting you would, too.

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The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at ernestob@pennwell.com and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at Courtney@Pennwell.com, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

February 2014
Volume 25, Issue 2
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