To win over the public, the autopilots of tomorrow will have to start today by exploiting niches where civilian pilots can't or won't work—just as was the case in the military. With time, the systems will improve and eventually fan out to conquer additional segments of the broader market.
Look for the following order of events. Today, small government-run UAVs are plying ocean routes, looking for pirates and lost sailors; next, companies will send the craft into the back country, along routes cleared for their passage by civilian regulators, to check on the state of pipelines and power lines. After that, UAVs will ferry valuable medical samples and packages. A doctor might, for example, put a vial of blood into a UAV and send it to the nearest teaching hospital for analysis; a courier service such as FedEx might fly important packages from Japan to California, using dedicated airfields on each country's shoreline, thus avoiding civilian air traffic altogether. Once they're demonstrated on the battlefield, robotic medevacs will graduate to civilian duty, rescuing people stranded by flood or fire. Maybe then, after seeing such rescues on television, the flying public will finally start to warm to the cold machine.
"We often talk about the 'save little Johnny' scenario, where no human-operated aircraft wants to go out in a terrible storm, so you send out robotic aircraft to save little Johnny, alone in the ocean," said Rodney Walker, in an interview conducted last summer. Regrettably, Walker, a professor of electrical and electronic engineering and of aerospace engineering at the Queensland University of Technology, in Brisbane, Australia, died as this article was being prepared for publication.
Walker's team, however, continues to work on his more immediately useful project—to use pilotless planes to survey power lines and find early signs of encroaching brush that might take the lines down in a storm. (It was apparently a wayward branch in Ohio that triggered the 2003 blackout in North America.) The idea is perfect for the empty parts of Queensland, a province with nearly three times the space and just a fifth of the population of Texas.
"Our energy distributors are desperately looking for new ways to surveil power lines," Walker told IEEE Spectrum in June. "They're taking the automated system we developed, but as a flight-assist system, and putting it into piloted aircraft for two to three years to prove the guidance and the automation. The pilot is largely hands off, but his presence allows us to meet regulations." He added that it would probably take no more than a decade to dispense with the pilot and fly the plane, perhaps autonomously and "certainly by remote control." Even then, such UAVs wouldn't be able to save little Johnny, but you could send out scores of them to sweep the seas for the tyke and then call in a piloted plane to pull him from the water.
Such baby steps in automation will eventually collide with another trend in aviation: the decades-long "decrewing" of airliners. Back in the day, the standard cockpit contained a full cast of characters, including the flight engineer, the navigator, and the radio operator. Technology has replaced those functions, and those people, one after the other.
The copilot is next in line. "Instead of a two-person cockpit, we'll see one person only, and software would serve as a backup," says New Mexico State's Davis. "And it'll come only after a certain period of performance, when the insurance industry is willing to accept the risk."
Of course, money is the necessary fuel for any pilotless air business, and so far, nobody in the industry has spied a huge pile of it waiting to be made. The field still needs a killer application to motivate moneyed interests to lobby the government and win over the flying public.
"The FAA isn't jumping ahead of things, because there hasn't been an extreme business case for doing so," says Davis. "No killer biz application has stood up and said, 'Here I am.' "
Cutting pilots' and copilots' salaries won't save much money: They matter little when spread over a jumbo jet's worth of passengers. Perhaps more significant, though hardly overwhelming, are the indirect costs of having to schedule flights so that fresh, rested crew members are available. Here the savings would be greater because you'd be able to minimize an airliner's downtime.
However, any true killer app would probably dispense with the existing business model altogether and replace it with an entirely new model, one that might start in a small niche and grow to take over commercial aviation. That's how the PC made its way from a glorified word processor to a general-purpose tool for small businesses and, later, for medium-size corporations. At some point it began to eat at the bottom of the mainframe market, in classic "disruptive" fashion.
For robo-flight, the killer app could start off with local air service. In many places just getting to the airport or to the main airport hub is the hardest leg of the trip. If small robo-planes could get you there, air travel would become vastly more attractive.
"Look at five-seat airplanes," says David Vos, senior director of unmanned aircraft systems and control technologies for Rockwell Collins, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "You could make a business out of a [pilotless] taxi service from one small airport to another, and it'd be a whole new world."
Just when we might see that world is still the great question. Back in 2002, two illustrious technogeeks bet US $2000 on whether full-fledged pilotless airliners would fly routinely by 2030. And they placed the bet (on the website Longbets.org) before much of the huge progress in military UAVs had even been demonstrated.
Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft, thought such an outcome likely. He imagined "arriving at a methodology for system design that yields as much dependability, on an everyday basis, as the triple-redundant computer that flew guys to the moon." Eric Schmidt, now the executive chairman of Google, argued that "the FAA changes so slowly that if this were even all possible, the adoption and certification would all take at least 50 years."
That would be true, perhaps, if the United States were the only force in civilian aviation. But some other country, with lots of space and fewer people, may very well decide that commercial pilotless flight makes sense now. Australia, are you listening?
This article originally appeared in print as "When will software have the right stuff?".