Would you feel comfortable flying in a pilotless plane? Before too long, you might not have a choice. Ahead of the 2017 Paris Airshow, the world’s largest manufacturers of airplanes, Boeing, announced its plans to build self-flying planes powered by artificial intelligence. And it’s hoping to test the technology in 2018.
The idea is not as crazy as it sounds. Flights are already largely automated, with onboard computers taking control during takeoff, cruising and landing. Autopilot technology has been in use for decades and has gradually become more sophisticated with increasing layers of automation.
“Legally we’re not allowed to go to sleep,” Douglas M. Moss, a pilot and aviation consultant with AeroPacific Consulting, told Wired. “But there are long times of what some people might consider boredom.” He explains that in Asia, pilots are instructed to use autopilot as much as possible, with captains banned from manually flying above 3,000 feet.
Boeing now wants to go a step further towards removing humans from the cockpit altogether by developing an AI system that could control the entire flight.
The technology required is similar to that used in self-flying drones. “The basic building blocks of the technology clearly are available,” said Mike Sinnett, Boeing’s vice president of product development, when he announced the news in Paris.
As with self-driving cars, pilotless planes will be at the mercy of government regulations and would have to meet all the required safety standards. But with global air travel predicted to grow, the self-flying vehicles could help answer the projected need for 1.5 million pilots over the next 20 years, and could save the industry and passengers $35 billion a year.