News & Opinion | July 16, 2018 1:22 pm

Would You Take a Flight That Doesn’t Have a Human Pilot?

Some think automation could erase the need for human pilots, but experts say we're not ready.

pilot
(Getty Images)
Getty Images

As the airline industry worries about a pilot shortage, some people think automation could obviate the need for human pilots altogether. But most experts don’t think we’re ready for that. They say the technology, the industry, and the passengers are not quite at the stage of fully autonomous flying.

“From what I see, could it happen in the distant future? I think it probably could. Will it happen in the near future? I don’t think so,” said Michael Wiggins, the chairman of the aeronautical science department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, to The New York Times. “Right now, any progress toward that area should be done very slowly, very measured and only after a bunch of research with results that suggest we should do that.”

Automated flight controls go all the way back to the 1920s, and those features grew more sophisticated through the 20th century. Technological improvements over the last 50 to 60 years have made flying safer than ever before. Updated versions of those same aircraft or newer, more efficient airframes that replaced them can be managed by two pilots when it used to require three or four people on duty. Major aircraft manufacturers are already starting to push the technological boundaries, and Boeing seems more than ready to fully embrace autonomous flight.