I’m kinda surprised this hasn’t started sooner, really… although 9/11 has made it difficult for a number of influential people to think rationally about air travel (or, in some cases, anything at all). But the logic is economically obvious: if we can remotely pilot UAVs over warzones, why the hell are we still using pilots in regular aircraft?
There are technological hurdles to overcome (as well as some legislative ones, no doubt), but they’re far from insurmountable:
Today’s airliners use a cooperative system called the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), whereby radio transmitters on each plane announce its position, height and heading. The system constructs a picture of what’s in a plane’s airspace and calculates collision risks. If a risk is detected, a loud, synthesised voice tells the crew to climb or dive to avoid the danger.
“UAVs will have to respond to these TCAS alerts,” says Dopping-Hepenstal. But when planes without TCAS venture close, things get tricky. Some of these “may be radio silent or have low electromagnetic signatures, making them difficult to detect”, he says. This is where the non-cooperative elements kick in. Astraea is developing a battery of sensors, including infrared heat sensors, millimetre-wave radars and optical cameras, to ensure UAVs know if a plane is nearby.
While infrared sensors and cameras should spot a plane in open air, they may lose it in cloud. That’s when millimetre-wave radar, which easily pierces fog, takes over.
Do bear in mind that the pilot of a large commercial aircraft leaves the autopilot to do its thing for around 99% of the journey in 99% of cases*; they’ve been glorified (and sharply-dressed) fail-safe fall-backs for decades now. I suppose the biggest question is whether air travel will remain economically viable for long enough to allow the reshaping of public opinion that would be needed to roll this out… though I fully expect RyanAir to start adding a Pilot Surcharge to all travel costs by the end of the week.
Don’t be scared, it’s a logical progression: if we can trust UAVs to kill people (so long as we’re not too picky about who exactly does the dying), it’s a short step to trusting them to not kill people.
[ * These percentages totally made up on the spot, but based on conversations with commercial pilots. Contrary figures welcomed – nay, encouraged. ]