How would you feel about flying on a pilotless plane? Inspired in part by drones and current efforts to create driverless cars, airplane manufacturer Boeing is testing pilotless jetliners—a reality that could transform the travel industry forever.
The development was publicized last week as a part of coverage leading up to the Paris Air Show.
A story on CNBC quoted one Boeing official as saying that the basic building blocks of the technology are available. Mike Sinnett, the company’s vice president of product development, noted that artificial intelligence (AI) would be at the heart of any pilotless planes Boeing produces.
“We’re studying it right now and developing those algorithms,” he said in a briefing.
The job certainly won’t be easy. According to the CNBC story, self-flying planes would have to meet the same safety standards that planes with pilots must meet. What’s more, Boeing and other manufacturers would have to figure out a way to get regulating bodies such as the Federal Aviation Administration to certify pilotless planes—currently, no such protocols are in place.
To some extent, autonomous airline technology already exists. Many of us know it as “autopilot.” And airplanes can take off, land, and cruise using these on-board flight computers.
Still, current technology still requires pilots to stand by in event of emergency, and the leap to AI technology that can avoid collisions and respond to potential dangers safely is a big one. Specifically, Sinnett noted that pilotless planes would need to be able to avert crises—such as when pilot Capt. Chesley Sullenberger landed a U.S. Airways plane in New York’s Hudson River in 2009 after the plane struck a flock of geese and became disabled after takeoff.
Speaking to a reporter from the Seattle Times, Sinnett noted the safety question is a huge one.
“We are not smart enough to preprogram all those things,” he was quoted as saying in a story published last week. “The machine has to be capable of making the same set of decisions; if it can’t, we can’t go there.”
The Seattle Times article noted that the development process will take time—likely years. The plan involves flying a simulator with an AI system making piloting decisions, then flying the same system on a real plane with engineers and pilots but no passengers. Eventually, maybe by 2020, Boeing expects to have the pilotless planes ready for passenger travel.
Once the planes are ready, however, will people come? Ultimately, this will be the most important question of all.