Every day millions of people happily put their trust in autonomous machines to propel them at high speed, hundreds of feet into the air, and without a moment’s concern for their safety.
The lift at the office or apartment block is one thing. Stepping on board a passenger aircraft flown by a computer rather than a pilot is another matter.
Within a matter of months that dilemma could become real. Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority (RTA) has announced that it will begin testing a two-seater autonomous flying taxi that within five years could be as familiar as the current terrestrial versions.
At the same time, the RTA is to work with Dubai’s Civil Aviation Authority to develop a legal framework for pilotless aircraft that carry passengers. Once in place it will be the first of its kind in the world.
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The Volocopter is unprecedented in the history of aviation, even though much of the technology is familiar. The aircraft is essentially a supersized drone, powered by 18 electric propellers and capable of around half an hour’s flying time.
What makes the Volocopter different is that it will do so with humans on board, but not at the controls. Passengers will need to do no more than enter their destination and fasten their seatbelt. The machine, watched over by its handlers on the ground, will do the rest.
The Volocopter, then, is a departure from aviation as we know it in almost every sense. It must also overcome a series of regulatory hurdles as well as win public confidence that they will emerge from the experience alive (although it does come with a parachute).
The principal issue for using a pilotless aircraft in the UAE would be one of liability, according to local lawyers with knowledge of aviation law.
While the liability of passenger airlines for international flights is governed by the 1929 Warsaw Convention, domestic flights are the responsibility of the country in which they take place. The 1944 Chicago Convention, which is enshrined in the UAE’s Civil Aviation Law, states that: “Every state has complete and exclusive sovereignty over airspace above its territory.”
The proposed Dubai law, they say, would have to establish liability, but also cover safety and security issues relating to anyone wishing to run a pilotless passenger service.
Standards of international civil aviation are agreed through the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICOA), with an elected council that currently includes the UAE, representing the region.
ICAO standards apply only to international flights but the organisation says its member governments “importantly keep these national rules and regulations aligned globally in the interests of overall system safety, security, efficiency and many other objectives”.
However, the organisation says that the growing awareness of the potential of what it describes as “remotely piloted aircraft” means it has been approached by both governments and companies who have “recognised the value of having internationally aligned approaches, and… encouraged us to get involved”.
Earlier this year the ICAO issued a request to members, seeking details of the latest concepts and proposal for what it calls Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and will have them presented at a conference in Canada later this year.
Even without legislation, the technology now exists to fly aircraft without pilots. The Centaur is a small twin-engine aircraft produced by Aurora Flight Sciences, an American company, that has already made a number of pilotless test flights.
The US military and Nasa, the US government’s space agency, have both carried out advanced research into autonomous aircraft, while Boeing and Airbus, which between them manufacture over 95 per cent of the world’s passenger aircraft, have also confirmed they are doing the same.
Tom Enders, the CEO of Airbus, announced early this year that the company hoped to fly a demonstration single-seat craft by the end of 2017, adding: “We take this development very seriously.”
Boeing says it is researching artificial intelligence to replace pilots, with Mike Sinnett, the company’s vice president responsible for future technologies, saying in June that: “The basic building blocks of the technology are already available.”
The biggest question was raised by another senior Boeing executive, John Tracy, its chief technology officer, back in 2015: “Will the flying public be comfortable about getting on a plane with no pilot?”
The counter argument is that modern aircraft fly themselves for most of the time. Advanced autopilot systems mean that today’s commercial airline pilots typically spend about five per cent of their time actually flying their aircraft. The rest of the flight they just monitor instruments and systems.
That five per cent, though, can be crucial. On January 15, 2009, United Airlines Flight 1549 was climbing out of New York’s La Guardia Airport when it hit a flock of Canada geese.
With both engines out of action, the pilots, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles, managed to glide the Airbus 320 to an unprecedented water landing on the Hudson River. All 155 passengers and crew survived what became known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”
The “miracle” was, in fact, superb flying by a pilot with nearly 30 years’ experience at the controls of commercial jets. No machine could have achieved such a difficult landing.
On the other hand, no machine would have behaved like Andreas Lubitz, a 28-year-old pilot with the airline Germanwings, and, who it turned out, had concealed a history of mental illness from his employers.
On March 24, 2015, Lubitz locked his co-pilot out of the cockpit and deliberately slammed his Airbus 320 – the same plane as United Airlines flight 1549 – into the French Alps from nearly 12,000 metres. All 144 passengers and six crew died instantly.
Two almost identical aircraft with pilots overriding the autopilot, but with tragically different outcomes, and which simultaneously make the best case both for and against autonomous passenger aircraft.
The reality, though, is that computers will take over more and more of the responsibilities on the flight deck. One casualty could be the co-pilot, exiting the cockpit like third officer role in the 1980s.
Instead, airlines will employ pilots to monitor several flights at a time from control centres on the ground. Should the lone pilot become incapacitated, or deranged, or even hijacked, the controls could be overridden from the ground and the aircraft landed safely remotely.
Airlines are particularly keen on the idea, because it offers potential savings on expensive pilots but does not compromise safety. As Michael O’Leary, the outspoken chief executive of Ryanair, put it bluntly in 2010: “Let’s take out the second pilot. Let the bl**dy computer fly it.”
Tim Robinson, editor-in-chief of the Royal Aeronautical Society’s magazine Aerospace, offered a more balanced explanation to the BBC last September: “Computers fly ultra-precise, repeatable trajectories, do not fly drunk, do not get tired, do not get distracted and, so the thinking goes, could be safer than human pilots in the future.”