In the future, the joke goes, airliners will each have a pilot and a dog. The dog will be there to bite the pilot if he touches the controls, and the pilot will be there to feed the dog. It’s no joke, though, when NASA scientists begin entertaining [PDF] the idea of replacing the copilot with a wideband connection to a ground controller. Who will take over the plane should the pilot become incapacitated? Nor is it a joke to carry the argument to its logical conclusion and do away with the pilot altogether.
It’s a beguiling vision. An autonomous airplane reliable enough to be trusted by passengers and air-safety regulators could save not just on salaries but also on the cost of managing the glitch-prone minuet by which well-rested flight crews are united with the planes they’re supposed to fly. That logistical problem will get harder as the pilot shortage worsens, and it will be hardest of all for short-hop air service, where the pilot-to-passenger ratio is high.