No pilots needed: aviation revolution begins with drone taxis

The World Economic Forum (WEF) is launching an initiative to prepare and accelerate the realization of autonomous aviation and ensure its responsible adoption.

According to the WEF, using autonomy in aviation could enhance safety, expand access, and avoid humans having to perform dangerous and dull jobs. The initiative, called AVIATE (Advancing Aviation Innovation and Autonomous Technology for Everyone), will bring relevant stakeholders from industry, government, academia, and civil society.

Hopes are that Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) consisting of smaller vertical take-off aircraft could be the most significant change to aviation since the jet age.

AAM is an air transportation system that transports individuals and property between points using aircraft, such as remotely piloted, autonomous, or vertical take-off and landing aircraft, including those powered by electric or hybrid driven propulsion, in controlled and uncontrolled airspace.

A new transportation concept builds on advances in electric propulsion, battery storage, advanced manufacturing, and autonomy. Innovative aircraft designs and flight technologies allow the movement of people and cargo, and perform services more efficiently.

Electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) air taxis buzzed the skies at the recent Paris Airshow. Such vehicles are set to transport passengers during the Olympic Games.

While the idea of large drones carrying people and goods between populated areas sparks the imagination, the WEF sees a gradual adoption.

“Beyond the excitement surrounding initial operations, it is important to note that AAM’s impact on our lives will grow gradually. The first such air-taxi services will be limited in numbers, and will likely be restricted to “premium journeys,” making them an unlikely everyday transportation option for most people,” WEF writes.

What solutions do we need for this technology to become more accessible?

The number of drones in a single city could reach hundreds and even thousands, which will necessitate increased automation and digitization of the air traffic control system. Drones need greater autonomy, including remote supervision.

While the concept of autonomous aircraft may sit uneasily with some people, the WEF suggests thinking about how autonomy can augment human capabilities, rather than replacing them. Today, many aircraft functions are already automated with high precision, with autopilots and flight control systems guiding planes through the skies along carefully planned routes, often without much human intervention.

Progress will alleviate pilots from operational burdens and reduce the risk of human error or fatigue. However, pilots will remain in place for other tasks.

“Pilots, even if they are not in the vehicle, will ultimately remain in control, and all of the different elements of the system, including the onboard autonomous technology, the command and control system, the surveillance and communication infrastructure, and the remote pilot-to-machine interface, will be meticulously designed and integrated to close the aircraft safety case,” the WEF writes.

Autonomous drones are already used to assist search and rescue efforts and assess critical infrastructure. These could soon be complemented by larger autonomous aircraft for firefighting or agricultural purposes – some of the most dangerous jobs pilots do today.

There are also moves for more autonomy in civil aviation. In 2021, Reuters reported that Cathay Pacific is working with Airbus to introduce "reduced crew" long-haul flights with a sole pilot in the cockpit much of the time. In January 2023, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun told Bloomberg TV that “the future of autonomy is real for civil,” but it will take time.

“And while commercial airliners may never become fully autonomous, opportunities abound to simplify, automate and backup pilot functions to make aviation safer, more cost-effective, and therefore more accessible to communities that cannot today be viably served by existing routes,” the WEF writes.

Safety is the number one priority, and autonomy should pay its way because of safety improvements.

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