““When I made the film The Invention of Lying, they gave me a private jet for getting back and forth between New York and London. I thought, ‘I will never use it’ but I ended up using it every weekend. You turn up, right, and the airport is completely empty. I mean, there’s just someone at the desk and then the pilot, who says, ‘Are you ready to go?’ and you say, ‘Don’t you want to see my passport?’ and he goes, ‘Oh yeah, I suppose I’d better.’” ”
“Those jets just about land themselves, don’t they?”
That’s been a common sentiment dating back to the introduction of “autoland” systems in the 1980s. Despite their Buck Rogers implications, they were meant to enable landings under even the most extreme low-visibility conditions. I remember editing an article that contained the phrase, “The computer can fly the airplane better than the pilot.” I had to restrain myself from adding: “…than the pilot…than the pilot…than the pilot…”
Really, it was never the computer in command of the airplane but rather the high-speed processor making the minute corrections on the final glidepath as directed by the pilot. And as for computers taking your pilot’s job away in the foreseeable future, consider that plenty of people are still uncomfortable with unmanned monorails–and there’s not much chance of them wandering off course.
But unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as unmanned aerial systems (UASs)–commonly called “drones”–have catapulted to public prominence in the past few years. That’s largely due to their combat roles in Afghanistan and Iraq. Drone strikes using precision-guided missiles have changed global warfare strategy, especially in remote regions.
Driven by military applications, the technical advances in sensor systems, remote navigation links and advanced optical systems have also led to speculation that the role of drones in U.S. airspace will expand. Just how far it will grow, and in what ways, is the subject of some controversy.
There are three important reasons why a mission can be better suited for a remotely piloted drone than for a manned aircraft. First, a drone can fly missions involving much higher-g maneuvering–tight turns or steep pullouts that tax the body’s ability to counteract inertia. Human pilots are limited to six to eight times the force of gravity before they black out from blood draining from their brains. Computer pilots have no such limitations. This is almost exclusively a military consideration.
Next, some drone-oriented missions are just too dangerous for a manned flight. And it doesn’t have to be a combat mission. Extended surveillance of pipelines at low altitude in mountainous terrain under high turbulence would be hazardous to a human-flown aircraft but more safely executed by an “expendable” drone.
Finally, with modern engines and systems, long-term flights of up to several days are possible in unmanned aircraft, whereas in a manned aircraft the crew’s physiological needs would not allow that duration. Besides fatigue, hunger and bathroom breaks, there is also the boredom factor. The unmanned drone doesn’t lose vigilance or miss even the remotest detail in its agenda even after hours and hours of inactivity. People, with their limited attention spans, can lose concentration as their minds wander. Think of this human shortcoming as you address your management team during the next quarterly staff meeting.
So drones could take over several missions currently flown by pilots, including surveillance, aerial photography, traffic reporting and electronic newsgathering. In addition, new roles are envisioned. In some cases, these are expansions of existing roles–real estate agents commissioning aerial photos of properties for sale, for example, or law enforcement operating UAVs for highway speed patrols. One concern is that an expansion of UAV capability and availability in our airspace will lead to unprecedented commercial–and individual–invasion of privacy. Topless rooftop sunbathers take note.
But is there any chance you’ll board a jet and find that a computer has replaced the pilot? Not likely. For one thing, someone, somewhere still has to be in control, and most passengers would prefer that person has as much to lose as they do.