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Are planes just giant flying robots?

What do pilots actually do? Do they even fly the plane, or is it all done for them? And if so, are we just sitting inside a flying robot, eating peanuts?

A lot has changed since the wright brothers took off on their first flight in 1903. Planes have become bigger, faster, and much more reliable, becoming the primary way to travel from country to country (could you imagine if we still had to sail for a week to get to our holiday destination?). And while most of us are certainly no strangers to the inside of an airplane, and some of us even get to fly a few times a year, we remain mostly ignorant as to what goes on inside the cockpit. We know pilots are piloting the aircraft, but we have little knowledge of what they actually do if they do anything. In fact, most people believe that pilots aren’t physically flying the plane and that it actually flies itself via the automatic pilot, which will make the aircraft a flying robot.

This is not true.

All modern commercial planes are equipped with an automatic pilot, but it does not fly the aircraft on its own. Instead, the pilots are still the ones flying the plane; they are just doing it with the help of the auto-pilot. Instead of the pilot holding the rudder and making tiny adjustments to the aircraft throughout the duration of the flight, the plane itself automatically makes micro-adjustments to keep it as stable as possible while the pilot feeds it instructions about the height, speed, and direction he wants it to go. It’s a bit like the cruise control in your car; it knows how to keep the vehicle at a fixed speed and even knows when to slow down and not to hit another car, but you are still the driver. You are still in control.

In most cases, the auto-pilot will be turned off entirely at takeoffs and landings to give the human pilot complete control of the aircraft. Although sometimes, especially in rough weather conditions, some pilots prefer the help of the autopilot to assist them with the tricky landing.

But what about robotic planes? Do they exist, and are they a good idea? Well, a few companies definitely think a robotic plane is a good idea, and they have been testing them for the past few years. These robotic planes can do everything by themselves, from takeoff to landing and everything in between; no human is needed throughout the duration of the flight. Granted, every test flight so far has had a human pilot behind the wheel, but they are there just in case something goes wrong.

You might find the concept of a pilotless plane scary, which makes a lot of sense; the first people to ride elevators in buildings also didn’t trust the new technology; that is why elevators used to have an elevator operator. In reality, a pilotless plane makes more sense than a driverless car. An autonomous vehicle must react in real-time to countless unexpected scenarios, from cars changing lanes to pedestrians jumping into traffic to cyclists, pets, road bumps, etc. In contrast, flying a plane is pretty uneventful; a plane just needs to get from point A to point B. there is usually not much going on in the sky. Plus, the technology for keeping a plane in the sky and having it correct itself is very advanced. In fact, Pilot error is considered the number one reason why planes crash. Many aviation accidents are caused when pilots misread flight equipment, misjudge weather conditions or fail to address mechanical errors adequately. That said, most people would still prefer having a human pilot behind the wheel, making all the decisions during the flight. And that is precisely the difference between an Auto-Piloted plane and an autonomous plane - Who makes the decisions? Nine out of ten passengers would probably say they prefer an experienced human pilot getting them to their destination rather than a very sophisticated computer program. However, some surveys done in recent years show that about 70% of people will feel safe enough to board a pilotless plane if the technology is shown to be reliable. This means if we want autonomous commercial flights, we should first start using robotic aircrafts in other fields, such as cargo shipping or surveillance.

The military has been using autonomous surveillance drones for years; These drones are capable of launching on their own, getting into position, and taking photos or videos of the enemy — all without any human operator. Although in case of an emergency, a human pilot can take control of the drone remotely. And indeed, when it comes to military drones, delivery drones, and perhaps even military planes, it's hard to imagine a future without fully robotic aircrafts. However, when human lives, especially civilian ones, are directly at stake, the transition to a fully autonomous future is less certain.

Perhaps what is needed is a middle ground between auto-pilots and robotic planes. Maybe the answer is a fully autonomous aircraft with a human pilot ready to take control at a second’s notice. And just as in the case of the military drones, that pilot doesn’t need to be physically inside the cockpit. Perhaps the role of the control tower of the future is to keep an eye on all robotic planes while being ready to take control over any of them at any moment.

Then again, what we have today is already a middle ground between fully human pilots and fully automatic pilots. And it seems to be working pretty well so far. Out of the Roughly 100,000 flights taking off and landing every single day all over the globe, there is an incredibly small number of plane crashes. And as they say: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” So we should ask ourselves what problem autonomous planes come to solve, and if the answer isn’t immediately apparent, perhaps we should stick to what we have at the moment.



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