Airbus recently completed testing of a system that could replace pilots on commercial airliners.  Passenger jets are already equipped with sophisticated autopilots that handle much of the flying between takeoffs and landings.  Now an A350-1000 XWB has achieved autonomous taxiing, takeoff and landing (ATTOL) through fully automatic, vision-based flight tests using on-board image recognition technology.

ATTOL System

Many aircraft are already able to land automatically, but must rely on external infrastructure like Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) or GPS signals.  ATTOL aims to make this possible solely using on-board technology.

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Cathay Pacific A350-1000 XWB

The ATTOL system performed successfully in a series of six test flights, each one including five takeoffs and landings.  The Airbus A350-1000 XWB utilized image recognition technology coupled with its external cameras, which provide views from the tail and nose landing gear, to essentially give the plane a pair of eyes that allowed it to taxi, takeoff and land entirely on its own.

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Tail camera view on Thai A350-900 at Bangkok, Thailand

For its passenger jets, though, Airbus isn’t proposing to replace pilots in the cockpit, at least not right away.  It contends that the goal of the program was “to explore how autonomous technologies … could help pilots focus less on aircraft operations and more on strategic decision-making and mission management.”  But operating the aircraft is what pilots are trained for.  They don’t need flying skills for strategic decision making and mission management what ever that means.

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Belly camera on Finnair A350-900 at Helsinki

Although Airbus declared the system a success, don’t expect to see it on passenger jets in the near future.  National authorities like the Federal Aviation Administration must thoroughly vet and approve the system before it could be installed on airplanes.  In fact, Airbus would likely not even begin that process until it believes there is sufficient demand for the system.

It is not clear when if ever airlines would want to install the current version of  ATTOL on their aircraft.  The information released so far leaves many questions and issues unaddressed.  There is no indication that ATTOL can communicate with air traffic control and other aircraft.  That is essential in all phases of flight but especially on the ramp and taxiways and in the airspace around airports. The demonstrations were in good weather.  Visual imagery is much less effective in bad weather.

Pilots Unions

While Airbus says the goal is not to eliminate pilots, airlines will be unable to resist if they can get away with it.  The median annual wage for airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers was $147,220 in May 2019.  Airlines might be able use the threat of employing ATTOL technology as leverage to obtain better terms in bargaining with pilot’s unions.  But pilots, as long as there are pilots, have the upper hand.  It is possible for major airlines to operate through strikes and labor unrest from every work group except pilots.  If pilots are not being replaced, there seems to be little incentive to pay for a an upgraded autopilot.

Using ATTOL technology and reducing pilot workload workload could make sense if airlines are able to change regulations and work rules to allow pilots to work more hours thereby reducing the overall number of pilots.  Both of those are tall tasks.  Airline pilot unions are some of the strongest unions remaining and they have good lobbyists.  Pilot unions will strongly resist anything that reduces the need for their members.

Pilots may not approve of ATTOL technology for another reason.  Airline pilots have thousands of hours in their logbooks, but how many of those hours were they actually flying the plane?  If aircraft become fully autonomous, it would seem that pilots should get no credit for flight hours when they have no responsibilities for the control of the aircraft.

Public Acceptance?

Last but not least is the public’s reaction.  Having ATTOL technology won’t be much help for airlines unless it replaces one or both of the people in the pointy end of the plane.  Selling that to the public will be tough.

Public acceptance of one or no pilot airplanes may turn on the success of driver-less cars.  If there are issues with that technology, people won’t accept pilot-less planes.  If driver-less cars prove to be foolproof then planes without pilots might eventually be accepted, too.

In making their case to the public, safety might be the airlines’ best argument.  Pilot error is the cause of about 80% of airline accidents.  Furthermore, although it is a fact that receives little attention, airline pilots all too often crash their aircraft intentionally.  Mozambique Airlines in November 2013, Egypt Air in October 1999, Silk Air in December 1997, Japan Air Lines in February 1982, and Germanwings in March 2015  are a few documented examplesThe disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March 2014, perhaps the most mysterious crash in aviation history, is also strongly suspected to have been caused by intentional acts of one or more pilots.

In spite of the potential safety advantages, it will still be difficult to get passengers to accept not having humans in the cockpit.  Machines aren’t foolproof, and passengers would miss the human touch. I know I would miss welcomes and flight updates from the friendly and reassuring voice from the cockpit.

Pilots may also take human considerations into account that a computer might not do as well.  Pilots can lobby with air traffic control for more direct routes to get flights on time, or altitude changes to avoid turbulence, or find more favorable winds aloft.  Would ATTOL do that?

Final Thoughts

I’m skeptical that reducing or eliminating the number of pilots in the cockpit will work because of resistance of pilot’s unions and passengers.  Cargo airlines don’t have to worry about passenger buy in.  Still, even cargo airlines must deal with the unions representing their pilots and regulatory authorities who can be influenced by public opinion.

Do you have thoughts on pilotless aircraft?  What, if anything, would it take for you to fly on an airplane without a pilot?