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Self-controlled robots fly, run and serve

Automation progresses in military and civil applications.

Air time

Drone operators, now at the cutting edge of military technology, may soon be replaced by wholly autonomous UAVs.

It's obvious what this trend means for pilots. Already, airliners can take off, fly across the country and land at their destination without a human ever touching the controls. The case for letting them do so is compelling.

The European Commission's Innovative Future Air Transport System (IFATS) project contemplates a near future in which the only pilots in continental airspace would be airshow demonstrators and weekend warriors in search of the 100-euro hamburger.

According to estimates from the IFATS consortium, it would cost only about $2 million to equip a 220-pax airliner for autonomous flight backed up by a pilot on the ground to help out with emergencies. Yet pre-tax profits would jump from about $15.7 million per year to more than $22.4 million!

If this is an unwelcome notion for many pilots, so is the idea of sharing airspace with craft that have no way to "see and avoid." Stu Julian is technical director of the New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association.

Last September, he called on the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority to block drone flights in the country until UAVs can meet the same safety and operational standards as manned aircraft.

Conventional aircraft undergo years of testing before they are certified to fly, he pointed out. Drones flying in New Zealand—only 8 have been certified thus far—face no such requirement.

Teal Group's Phil Finnegan believes it could be a long time before most US pilots have to worry about unmanned aircraft. "FAA will move cautiously in allowing UAVs into national airspace," he says. "Beyond the needed regulations, there is no guarantee that needed technology such as sense-and-avoid technology will be sufficiently mature."

Nonetheless, the process has begun. As part of the FAA Reauthorization Act passed in Feb 2012, Congress ordered FAA to develop regulations for licensing commercial UAVs by 2015.

In September, Acting Administrator Michael Huerta reported, "There's a lot of work that needs to be done to move [drone] integration forward. But I'm very, very optimistic we will get there."

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


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