Robots take to the sky

An imminent plethora of UAVs, big and small, will have implications for existing and future users of the NAS.

Virginia Tech's specially equipped Ford Escape hybrid negotiated 1.5 miles of the Daytona Intl Speedway safely with a blind driver at the wheel, avoiding random obstacles, as part of a challenge by the National Federation of the Blind.

Once the left-seater also succumbs to automation, the reassurance of having a human pilot for backup—even if he is safely on the ground—will become even more critical to public acceptance of autonomous aircraft.

The day is likely to come soon. Dennis Hong and his students at Virginia Tech won a challenge recently from the National Federation for the Blind by building a car that can be steered safely around an obstacle course by blind drivers.

It was just a prototype, but Hong predicts that a safe, stable technology for blind motorists will arrive within 3 years. "The problem is not the technology," he says. "The problem is public perception and legal issues."

Hong adds, "Ground autonomous vehicles are much more difficult to implement than autonomous aerial vehicles. I would expect to see fully autonomous aircraft capable of taking off and landing with passengers within 10 years.

When you think about it, we already have them. Your last flight on a passenger plane probably used the autopilot, and that is exactly autonomous flying with real people on board."

Career concerns

The eventual replacement of human pilots by machines is almost inevitable. One reason is economic. The IFATS consortium estimates that adding autonomous control hardware to a $36-million airliner carrying 220 passengers would bump its cost up by less than $2 million.

In return, it would carry 230 passengers, cruise 5% faster, use 5% less fuel, cost 20% less for maintenance, and boost average annual flight hours from 3650 to 3833. And back-up pilots on the ground would earn half as much as today's pilots.

All this means that pre-tax profits would soar 42%, from about $15.7 million per year per aircraft to $22.4 million. Robert Finkelstein, president of Robotic Technology, points out that the saving might be greater still. "If pilots on the ground were supervising autonomous commercial aircraft at a distance, able to take control in an emergency," he says, "one pilot might supervise several aircraft, providing significant economic leverage."

Add to this the new opportunities that wholly autonomous aircraft will bring. "Once a robotic ATC system is in place," says NASA's Bushnell, "then 2 civilian applications of UAVs become practical—personal air vehicles and robotic delivery vehicles.

These would provide affordable alternatives to current ground transportation, enable tremendous savings in ground infrastructure costs, be airport independent, and provide a transportation system for the major areas of the globe lacking intercity roads."
It is a vision Finkelstein shares.

He anticipates that personal air vehicles "would allow individuals to operate from their driveways. People could commute to work in 3-dimensional traffic lanes, with no need for land or asphalt for highways. No piloting skill would be necessary. It would be like a horizontal, long-range elevator."

Bushnell estimates that the global market for civilian robotic aircraft will be on the order of $1 trillion annually. If the US managed to capture that market, the sales would "fix" America's balance of payments problem.

And if not, someone else will make the necessary investment in R&D. This is just too lucrative a market to go neglected for long.

All this makes inevitable the demise of professional aviation as we know it. But it's probably nothing to lose sleep over. "Maybe I'm kind of a Luddite," says Teal Group VP Analysis Richard Aboulafia, "but I believe we're a very long way from wholesale replacement of pilots by remote guidance systems. The risk of an interrupted data stream is just too great.

"There's an easy early warning sign," he adds. "When will railroads go unmanned? That would be safer and easier, but the concept doesn't really have any advocates yet."

It is likely that the day will come when flying a powered airplane is no different from flying sailplanes today, but that is a consideration for the distant future. Today's professional pilots have long, productive and rewarding careers ahead of them.

Marvin Cetron is a forecaster/futurist and president of Forecasting Intl. His 1994 study for the Pentagon,Terror 2000, contained numerous predictions of the subsequent course of terrorism.


1 | 2|