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Up to airlines to promote pilotless aircraft – Airbus

written by australianaviation.com.au | May 25, 2012

Pilotless airliners are technically feasible. (Airbus)

Airbus says it is ready and able to build a pilotless airliner but is says it is up to the airlines to sell the concept to the public.

Addressing global media at Airbus Innovation Days Airbus executive vice president of strategy and future programs Christian Scherer said that “airlines are pressing it to reduce costs on a plane “and pilots are the highest costs aside from fuel.”

“We [through parent EADS] are a leader in pilotless drones for the military and we can develop the algorithms for even the [US Airway’s water landing on the] Hudson River,” said Mr Scherer.

“We can build a pilotless commercial plane now but it is up to the airlines to sell the concept to the public.”

Mr Scherer said he didn’t think the flying public was quite ready for a pilotless aircraft but said that Airbus needed to be ahead of the technology and ready to move if demand eventuated.

Mr Scherer said that a number of airlines both cargo and passenger were talking to Airbus about a pilotless plane but he declined to name them.

However, there are significant challenges with the technology with such important aspects such as cross-wind landings with current auto-land systems unable to handle strong winds.


In the meantime, Airbus is working on advances to cockpit technology, and forecasts a step change in flightdeck layout and technologies in future airliners.

“The next aircraft after [the A320] neo is going to have a very different cockpit than the A320’s today,” Mr Scherer said.

“I would guess there will be a rupture and there will be a new standard on which we will build [flightdeck] commonality.”


(Geoffrey Thomas)


Comments (22)

  • RH Hastings


    Airframers in addition to airlines have their responsibility as well, as a jump from a two crew cockpit to a zero crew cockpit may just scare the public from flying.

    Airframers’ can propose a phased approach and equipment for a single pilot (with possibly ground based backup), and later a fully automated aircraft over a period of decades.

    Yet, as we’ve seen, even the most fully “tested” and “qualified” system has its failings as they are, no less, developed by humans. Just one catastrophe with a pilot-less commercial aircraft would end the program.

    Christian Scherer is somewhat right about the cost of pilots (really, it the cost of all employees that rivals the cost of fuel, not just pilots), but he is dead wrong saying, “it is up to the airlines to sell the concept,” of pilot-less commercial aircraft.

  • Peter


    Pilot error is the #1 cause of all aircraft accidents – there’s a saying that the best piece of safety equipment on an airplane is a well-trained crew. You could flip that on it’s head and say, the most dangerous thing in an airplane is the pilot. Removing the pilot and replacing him with an automatic system which never gets tired, never turns up to work drunk, never feels suicidal and never makes decisions based on pride or bravado and you will have a safer airplane. It’s sad to say that, because there are many good pilots out there doing their jobs properly, but many have not, and people have died needlessly because of it.

    • Timothe


      The number one cause of crashes today is Human error. Yes pilots are human but human error also includes ATC errors, flight loader error, mechanics error, etc, etc. The argument that “computers don’t show up drunk” is ridiculous. It assumes pilots show up drunk to work regularly. Planes suffer from failures (including computer failures) more often than pilots show up drunk to work. Also, Planes don’t crash due to a single cause. Usually it will start with a computer failure or some other problem with the plane and the pilots fail to recover. Most of the times when the plane messes up the pilots save it. Removing pilots won’t decrease crashes it will just make them attributable to the original causes of the crash and not the human response. Essentially the plane would just crash and no one would have attempted to save it.

  • jimmy latsos


    Is the plane fully autonomous or controlled by a ground station similar to some military uav’s?…either way it is a cool concept, but as the above headline states,can you convince the flying public otherwise?

  • Mike Borgelt


    So what happens when the automation fails? Current Airbus aircraft are highly automated and they fail.
    This is an incredibly stupid idea. I want somebody up front who will recover the aircraft or die trying.

  • Keg


    So what happens in a Hudson type scenario? Who makes the decision to ditch? How do they know where to ditch? It’s all well and good to program the algorithm that controls the ditching but the decision of when and where is something that can’t be programmed into the computer.

  • Cooper


    Air France a330 flight is a prime example of computer failure. Where is this coming from? Airbus should know more than anyone how unreliable their computer systems are. There is no way I would get on an a fully automated airbus aircraft. What would happen in a unique situation such as a part of the aircraft falling off?

    Whilst I understand the costs of pilots are high (especially in Australia where not only the job is factored in, lifestyle is too, unlike any other country, e.g, Virgin choose to accommodate their crew in cities rather than at the airport) this is not the answer

  • random


    1. I always want someone up the front just as scared of dying prematurely as me – I think most if not all passengers have some sense of security in this.
    2. There are countless examples (Hudson River ditching, Sioux City DC-10, & Qantas A380 engine failure amongst them) where the crew skills combined with timely decision making resulted in an outcome that was subsequently proven to hard to replicate even in a more controlled setting such as a simulator. In some of those instances the addition of non-active crew (pilots sitting as passengers) was the key ingredient to a relatively succesful outcome (or minimising a bad one).
    3. Almost every human designed system has the capacity to throw up data & processing errors – ones that can have seriously detrimental effects upon automated systems relying on the quality of that information (A330s such as Qantas near Learmonth or Air France in the South Atlantic).

  • James


    Why are we so obsessed with reducing costs? Isn’t air travel cheap enough? Let’s keep the pilots in the cockpit and pay them.

  • Jon


    I agree with James. Why is the world so obsessed with using technology to lower costs? Think what devastating effects this would have on people’s lives? Flight schools would shut as the demand would drop to train fixed wing aircrew (not all as there would still be a need for GA / Aeromedical / Bush flying), obviously pilots would lose their jobs, also agencies, crew support services and countless other areas that support pilots and rely on them for their income.

    As we replace jobs with computers – does this mean we will all either have to work in IT or finance? Airlines could save a huge amount of money by replacing their legal team with computers. How about that? Or HR, why not let computers interview us? How about a holographic flight attendant?

    If airlines want to save money, stop looking at replacing people’s jobs and start looking at the $5 million bonuses you give under-performing executives. Only this journalist would come up with an article like this – did he send a copy to AJ from QF?

  • Dan


    Im not too sure if or when it will happen for passenger carrying airliners. If they want to try this technology, I say try it on a cargo plane. That way you’re reducing the risk of human fatalities dramatically.

  • AnthonyBee


    I think these are some really good comments above. Except for Peter’s.

    I’m not certain “Pilot error” is the absolute standout rather “Human error”. I agree that computers can be safer but this is only in a situation where we completely remove humans from maintenance, building aircraft, refuellers, ATC, etc…
    As a pilot we are told that autopilot can fly the aeroplane much more accurately than ourselves. It shocks some of the young “top gun” pilots to hear this on their first week of training but no human pilot can hold +- 1 degree of heading for 14 hours straight if need be. For this reason they are the perfect aid in air transport. We need to continuously focus on human factors and our relationship with the auto systems on board not trying to find ways to completely remove the human.

    It is possible to have a pilotless system but I’m not climbing aboard until the whole aviation industry is controlled by computers. As long as humans are involved someone in that aeroplane has to be a link in the Software, Hardware, Environment, Liveware system.

    Flying aircraft is not just about Aeroplane starts at A and land safely at B. There is so many decisions to be made in one sector of flying its not funny. For this reason we need all the ground staff, pilots, scientists, computers, etc to get the job done properly. We have only just managed to build a computer with the brain capacity of just 1 human and its well too large to sit in an aeroplane.

    Why would aviation need such a drastic change when it really is an extraordinarily safe way to travel? It is the public’s false perception of Aviation safety that raises these questions about fully automated commercial passenger travel. And I think the public perception on this will change dramatically if 1 fully automated aeroplane causes 1 death and then it will be back to humans piloting aircraft.

  • Ian


    I further the proposal with the same fate befalling ATC. Get rid of the biologicals and you get rid of the problems!
    This is an excellent proposal which will be howled down with all the emotion of nostalgia – not science, engineering or fact of reality.

  • Grumpyoldfart


    You’d never get me on one of those things!

  • Miguel Peixoto


    Smart idea… Why we don’ make an airplane that you shut down one engine in cruise to save fuel, the technology is available today…we can use some chinese eletronics which are cheaper, this things are expensive… and we most save money to garantee the airline CEOs bonus…. Lives are minor thing….

    Ask this smart Airbus executive if he would put his family on board a pilotless Airbus….NO WAY.

    He is a lier….WE HAVE PILOTS IN OUR PLANES…. that’ is a winner advertisment… simple as that

  • Maurice Duffill


    A bridge too far!

  • Dan


    Jon, right on about the executive bonuses. The fat exists only at the top, and the trimming needs to start there. A vehicle with a lower center of gravity is infinitely more STABLE. Pilots in the USA only make 16,000 a year during their first year, and often it takes them more than 5 years to even make the 50k a year mark. These days you can’t afford a basic life with a small starter row-home while saving for retirement unless you make at least 65k a year in the US. 1 executive salary = 120 5 yr pilots. Do the math. And having personally seen the autopilots “act up” and need “rebooted” I’d say no thanks to autonomous airliners.

  • Dan


    Oh, and about the “Pilot Error” comment. That’s called “piss on the dead because they can’t sue us”. People need someone to point the finger at, and the airline industry doesn’t want it pointed at the aircraft manufacturer, or the airlines. They operate on slim enough “profits” as it is. So blaming the dead guy makes the most sense. The engineers make bad designs which can be counter-intuitive to human interaction as well.

  • James


    The thought processes required during a time of emergency as a pilot of an airliner cannot be rivalled by any computer, algorithms or any other type of technology. Two pilots will always be the best system in terms of safety.
    Airbus aircraft are already highly autonomous and are very easy to fly – but when they go wrong they REALLY go wrong. Even the “fly by wire” system is frowned upon by many as being too “disconnected” – an entirely autonomous, passenger carrying airliner? there’s just too much that can go wrong. There are an almost infinite number of situations an airliner could be experiencing at any one time and these cannot all be programmed into a computer (Even if it is possible the reliability and the ability for the right solution to a problem to be applied is questionable)
    Sure, i encourage and embrace progress in technology and rely on it sometimes, but i would not trust a program to fly a plane, drive a car, captain a ship… etc. etc.

    About the “pilot error” remark.
    If you program a robot to be a pilot, the same mistake a real pilot would make (mind you pilot error is often caused by faulty computer systems in aircraft feeding incorrect information) could just as easily/more easily be made by a robot due to the lack of that extra amount of rational human judgement/brain power and/or instinct which could mean the difference between the life or death of hundreds of people.

    At the end of the day, the airline business is about safety (preserving human life), not gaining the most profit.

  • Bob


    “Unmanned aircraft patrolling the nation’s borders have an accident rate seven times greater than general aviation aircraft, and hundreds of times greater than the rate of jetliners, federal officials said Thursday in urging caution in expanding the use of pilotless planes.

    Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have proven remarkably useful in the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan, but are difficult to integrate into U.S. skies, the most complex airspace in the world, FAA official Nancy Kalinowski said in testimony before a House Homeland Security subcommittee.”

    Seven times greater than General Aviation, and hundreds of times greater than “Jetliners”. (I believe the number is 353 times greater)

    Would you put your wife, children, Grandmother, family dog on a pilotless airliner now?

    “You could flip that on it’s head and say, the most dangerous thing in an airplane is the pilot. Removing the pilot and replacing him with an automatic system which never gets tired, never turns up to work drunk, never feels suicidal and never makes decisions based on pride or bravado and you will have a safer airplane. ”

    That same automatic system has no fear of premature death, nor need to survive.

    Under a “automatic system” the most dangerous thing in an airplane becomes a programmer, an engineer or a mechanic. You just shift the human error from a active failure to a latent hidden failure with no chance of rectification when the error occurs, because the programmer wrote the program years ago in France, the engineer designed the system years ago in France and the mechanic is tucked up in bed while you die.

    No one on the aircraft can do anything about that because the experience to fix the problem was made redundant and too expensive years ago nor are there any controls probably available onboard, the weight was too great to carry such a system because it was deemed statistically impossible to occur.

    Latent errors will always be there, you cannot automate them out. They exist because humans were involved designing and building the automatic system and humans will always make errors.

    Sure a autopilot could do a Hudson River landing. But can the autopilot make the decision WHEN to execute such a routine, and WHERE to place the aircraft while minimizing loss of life.

    I can see some cargo aircraft going pilotless but I can almost guarantee the crash rate will be so high, that insurers will not insure cargo carried by such aircraft, purely because of the latent error problem and the little chance of fixing such a problem when it occurs. Uplinks fail, computer go down.

  • Mark S


    An Airbus without a pilot….given their history “with ” pilots…I dont think so !!! I might consider it on a Boeing…bottom line is the publicsimply isnt ready for this concept when their rear ends are in the passenger seats.

  • goober


    The best way to ship cargo on aircraft should be autonomous jets with no pilots on board and all these drone pilots in a central place monitoring and if need be taking over on manual reversion. You pay the drone monitor pilots 1/4 to 1/2 of what topped out pilots now make and all the insurance, vacation and retirement is eliminated. Totally doable with existing technology, it’s only a matter of time, I’m sure Fedex and UPS are chomping at the bit ready to roll on this idea.

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