UBS: Pilotless Airplanes Represent $35B Opportunity

Technology will be feasible for unmanned passenger and cargo operations by 2025, new UBS report finds.

A move toward pilotless airplanes represents a $35 billion global opportunity, including $3 billion in savings in the business aviation sector, and could technically be ready for commercial operations by 2025, a new report from Swiss analyst UBS asserts. The report—“Flying solo —how far are we down the path towards pilotless planes?”—delves into the cost savings and other benefits, technical feasibility, and challenges facing the use of pilotless airplanes.

Industry is well en route to an automated airplane, the report states, noting, “In the not-too-distant future, we would expect to see a situation where flights are pilotless or the number of pilots shrinks to one, with a remote pilot based on the ground and highly secure ground-to-air communications.”

Technology for remote-control drones exists today and this technology can be adapted for use in helicopters, general aviation, smaller business jets, and eventually commercial aviation.

“A number of manufacturers are already involved in making pilotless planes a reality,” the report says, pointing to initiatives underway at Boeing and Airbus, as well as preparations Embraer has been making in anticipation of the possibility of a single-pilot operation by as early as 2020. NASA further is exploring single-pilot concepts under which one pilot remaining in the cockpit works in tandem with a ground operator.

The report also found considerable activity in efforts on the “sky taxi” front, citing a half-dozen examples, including Uber’s work with companies such as Bell Helicopter, Aurora, Mooney, Embraer, and Pipistrel to make flying taxis. Uber is in negotiations with Dubai and Dallas-Fort Worth to begin demonstrations in 2020.

“Technically speaking, remotely controlled planes carrying passengers and cargo could appear by 2025,” the report says.

As for benefits, the report cites the potential of saving $35 billion in annual pilot, training, fuel, and insurance costs. As for business jets, the report estimates two-thirds are flown by professional pilots, typically with two pilots. Factoring in average salaries, pilotless airplanes could produce up to $2 billion in annual savings in pilot costs, the report speculates. In addition, optimized flight paths that could come with the technologies could produce another $1 billion in fuel savings.

Similarly, in the civil helicopter industry, up to $2.1 billion could be saved “if pilots were removed totally.” While the report looks at the possibility of pilotless operations, UBS sees the transition to single-pilot operations first. In addition, the report cites safety benefits and suggests that improved safety could result in “hundreds of millions” in insurance premium savings.

But the report sees several obstacles, including public perception. More than half (54 percent) of 8,000 people surveyed said they would be unlikely to fly aboard a pilotless airplane. Only 17 percent of those surveyed said they would take such a flight. But the report suggests that this is a generational issue. Some 30 percent of younger respondents (aged 18 to 34) indicated they would be willing to fly aboard a pilotless airplane.