Will computers ever fly alone?

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Aviation analyst Brian Foley stirred the pot in a recent article published by Forbes asserting that Boeing’s 20-year outlook for pilot and technician demand overestimates future demand for pilots by discounting the effects of automation advances. Boeing predicts 763,000 pilots will be needed worldwide over the coming 20-year period, a 5-percent reduction from the firm’s 2019 forecast. The Seattle manufacturer expects airline layoffs and furloughs prompted by the coronavirus pandemic will eventually be offset by resurgent demand, crew retirements, and expanding aircraft fleets. Canadian flight simulator maker CAE issued its own forecast November 9 predicting demand for 260,000 new pilots through 2029, including 27,000 new pilots needed by the end of 2021.

CAE also noted that many of the recently furloughed pilots have found work in other industries as airlines scale back routes amid plunging demand for air travel (which seems unlikely to recover as long as the coronavirus remains a factor). “On the other hand, data indicates that the industry will face significant challenges in the upcoming years to meet the demand for pilots,” wrote Nick Leontidis, CAE group president of civil aviation training solutions, in the online presentation of the firm’s forecast. 

“That may be, but only if the world of cockpit technology stands still for the next two decades, which would seem highly unlikely,” Foley wrote, specifically in reference to Boeing’s prediction, though Boeing and CAE expect similar future demand for pilots.

Foley noted that automation has already arrived, to a degree. Garmin’s Autoland system, unveiled in 2019, can fly a GA aircraft to the nearest suitable runway and land if the human pilot becomes incapacitated—a passenger just has to press one button. Military aircraft have flown without a human aboard for several years, with drones high overhead and helicopters hugging the earth to deliver cargo drops in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Autonomous tech startup Xwing has secured FAA Part 135 air carrier certification for unmanned deliveries in a converted Cessna Grand Caravan, and hopes to begin autonomous cargo delivery operations in 2022, supervised by humans on the ground, to start.

Urban air mobility could drive further progress in automation, or, at least, demand for progress. Some firms vying for a slice of the future air taxi service pie are aiming for autonomy sooner than later, though others envision human pilots will be needed, at least for a few years, to achieve regulatory approval and public confidence.

This post was originally published by AOPA on . Please visit the original post to read the complete article.

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