Computer-controlled aircraft to save airlines N12.8tr


The development of pilotless passenger aircraft could be worth N12.8 trillion ($35 billion or £27 billion) to the aviation industry and cut fares for passengers, according to research.

Analysis by investment bank UBS, found that technology to enable remotely controlled planes carrying people and cargo could appear by 2025. Almost three-quarter of the economic benefit would be in airlines reducing the cost of employing pilots, the study found.

The money would come not only from eliminating highly paid pilots, who require expensive training, but also by making aircraft safer by having them controlled by computers which are less likely to make errors. United States’ safety data attributes three quarter of accidents to human error.

Flights would also be more efficient because of the exacting nature of the way they would be flown digitally, meaning less fuel would be used, and aircraft could be flown closer together, allowing air space to be more crowded.

Aircraft would be able to be used more intensively, as they would not require rest days that pilots currently get. In the United States, passengers could benefit by air fares being cut by as much as 11 per cent, UBS said.

UBS analysts Jarrod Castle, and Celine Fornaro, point out that similar “technology to remotely control military drones already exists and this could be adapted to civil applications”.

But a poll of 1,602 United Kingdom consumers found that more than half (53 per cent) said they are unlikely to travel on such an aircraft. A wider survey, including respondents in the United States, France, Germany, and Australia found that this figure dropped to 41 per cent and 40 per cent for those aged 18-24 and 25-34 respectively.

British Pilots’ Association (Balpa) said it had “concerns” about “the excitement of this futuristic idea” – but noted that cockpits are already highly automated. Currently technology means that the majority flights are under the control of autopilot and modern aircraft can land without a human taking the controls. But when things go wrong, Balpa said people want a human in the cockpit.

Ryanair boss, Michael O’Leary, said in 2010 he would seek permission to only use one pilot per flight, claiming the second is unnecessary and only there to “make sure the first fella doesn’t fall asleep and knock over one of the computer controls”.

UBS predicted that the cargo industry could be the first to use flights without a pilot.Its report said: “Unlike passengers, cargo is not concerned with the status of its pilots (human or autonomous). For this reason, pilotless cargo aircraft may happen more swiftly than for passengers.”

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