Will We Ever See Pilotless Planes?


In the heart of the 4th Industrial Revolution, technological advancements once thought to be pure fiction have become a reality. This makes questions on automation more relevant than ever because we’re already seeing its real-time implementation across major industries.

In the aviation industry, machine-learning algorithms are already being used to automate RFQ processes. Considering there’s still an average load factor of 65.1% for passenger and cargo traffic despite the pandemic, this means that roughly 4.5 million seat-kilometers are potentially making use of automated POs and RFQs for cargo transactions. This progress begs the question, are self-flying planes next? Although before we even begin to answer this question, we need to talk about how automation currently benefits today’s society.

The Age of Automation

Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation have already become extremely important to society. Businesses are making use of software to automate hiring processes, management, and analytics. Beyond that, the large-scale implementation of the Internet of Things (IoT) has made smart machines inherent parts of our daily routines. Take Alexa for instance, a virtual assistant that can be connected to your devices and execute a variety of actions, from ordering food to changing the temperature in our homes. Or devices like the Roomba, a robotic vacuum that cleans without human intervention and even learns its owner’s habits to create the most convenient cleaning schedule.

Out on the roads, traffic management is being disrupted thanks to AI-based traffic lights that can pinpoint changes in lanes and general driver behavior. We are also seeing self-driving cars on the streets. For now, the total autonomy of these vehicles is still limited, as they still need some human intervention. In a post on self-driving cars by Verizon Connect it breaks down the five levels of automation for vehicles, explaining how the 5th level means the vehicle is fully automated. This means there will be absolutely no need for any human presence in the vehicle to handle both basic functions and any advanced decisions, such as taking care of emergency procedures. However, with manufacturers constantly releasing new software and hardware updates, fully autonomous cars are expected within the decade.

With there already being automation present in our vehicles, the possibility of expanding this to other forms of transportation, such as aircrafts and boats is getting nearer. Right now, marine autonomy is on another level compared to other transportation. MIT has created a 2-meter-long autonomous boat capable of carrying passengers. With the goal to eventually collect waste as well as deliver goods and services, the Roboat II leads the first-ever fleet of autonomous boats in the world. Its team has already produced boats that can transport small items, but its new goal is to create a full-scale boat that can carry up to six passengers at a time.

Tomorrow’s Skies

It’s clear that other forms of transportation are well on their way to autonomy. But what about the aviation industry? For starters, Merlin Labs announced that it has raised $25 million in funding to create pilotless planes for cargo and passenger flights. Over the years, the main concerns with regards to this venture have been about safety, the price of aircrafts, and the possibility of using this technology as a military weapon.

But Merlin’s goal is to use air traffic control networks and ground-based radars to create a safe path for planes. They will also be incorporating systems that will allow these pilotless planes to identify other planes and nearby obstructions. Aside from Merlin, other companies like Xwing are trying to create automated aircrafts for commercial and private purposes. Our current planes already have a rudimentary autopilot system, so researchers are confident that complete autonomy is not very far away.

So, although we may be some way off seeing empty cockpits on commercial flights, we are definitely on track to get there someday.