This summer will see aerospace giant Boeing bringing its self-flying planes into their testing phase.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the aerospace company announced that it was studying how it can eventually implement self-flying technologies in passenger planes. Eventually, this move will take human pilots out of the equation and let automated systems fly our planes.
Pilotless airplanes may sound a little crazy and more than a little scary. How, after all, can we trust a machine to safely fly us through the skies on its own? Surely, even though human error is always a possibility, human intuition still plays a large role in the safe operation of aircraft?
Scientists, or at least the developers of self-flying planes, say that these fears are understandable but unnecessary. Planes apparently already run mostly on autopilot once aloft. Thus, it's just a matter of taking the available, tried and tested technology further.
This summer, Boeing will be testing artificial intelligence that can fly autonomous planes. The move stems in part from the fact that the world is facing a shortage of pilots. As the demand for air travel increases, the supply of pilots is unable to keep up. Boeing's vice president for product development, Mike Sinnett, expects that the need for commercial planes will rise by the tens of thousands over the next two decades.
Airlines can thus keep up with this demand by automating flight. Boeing's artificial intelligence program will undergo tests that will determine how well the program can make the decisions that pilots make. Sometimes, pilots need to go against the recommendations of their autopilot system or notice things that the autopilot system hasn't. If truly pilotless planes are to become a reality, the artificial intelligence program will have to be able to do what pilots can also do.
Boeing plans to test the technology in cockpit simulators this summer and then in actual planes sometime next year.
Of course, there's something to be said for human pilots. It would, after all, be surprising if a plane's artificial intelligence system managed to pull off something akin to the “Miracle on the Hudson”. Thus, there's a possibility that a fully autonomous self-flying plane will never become a reality. There may still be a need for pilots that will guide the plane and make decisions and analyses that the artificial intelligence system cannot.
What does an artificial intelligence program for an autonomous plane have to be able to do anyway? In a nutshell, it has to be able to do what Captain Chelsey Sullenberger, the hero pilot in the Miracle on the Hudson, can do. It has to be able to analyze reports, make the right decisions in an emergency, and communicate with air traffic. Otherwise, fully autonomous planes will be a no go, says Sinnett.
It's also going to be a while before governments allow autonomous planes to fly passengers from one place to the next. Of course, this doesn't mean that scientists and companies like Boeing will give up any time soon. Boeing's researchers are working towards making automated flights become a reality for all.
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