When will unmanned aircraft be allowed to take off? – The Irish Times

Airlines around the world have limited their schedules and canceled flights, often at the last minute, despite increased public demand and the peak of the summer season in the Western Hemisphere. Why does this happen?

Before the pandemic hit, commercial aviation was already under pressure due to labor shortages, especially for pilots. Boeing and Airbus both had large order books, and an industry estimate predicted that 34,000 additional pilots worldwide would be needed by 2025. The cohort of senior pilots was approaching retirement age and the he International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) had increased mandatory retirement. from 60 to 65 to facilitate the transition of the industry. On Thursday, after Japan, Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham is reportedly drafting a bill to raise the mandatory retirement age in the United States to 67.

When the pandemic hit, uncertainty about its duration led many airlines to lay off or even lay off staff, including pilots. Former airline employees had little choice but to seek employment elsewhere. Many apparently did and now have not only exciting new jobs with reasonable pay, but also a better work-life balance: more time to see family and friends, less time in bedrooms. remote hotels and less stress due to incessant travel and time zone. changes.

Unlike the 9/11 crisis in the industry in 2001, interest in aviation has not waned during the pandemic. On the contrary, quarantine requirements and mandatory lockdowns have temporarily imposed restrictions. As the pandemic subsided, pent-up demand predictably increased. However, airlines have met considerable resistance trying to rehire staff they laid off during the pandemic. Some left the industry. Meanwhile, most flight schools have reduced their number of cadets during the pandemic.

Some start-ups are exploiting the systemic problem, and Airbus and Boeing are also innovating. If the automotive industry is moving towards autonomous vehicles, and the space industry has already done so (SpaceX’s manned vehicles are fully autonomous), can commercial aircraft become autonomous? Companies such as Xwing and Reliable Robotics in the Bay Area of ​​California, and Merlin Labs in Boston, think so. Meanwhile, Airbus has demonstrated a system for an Airbus 350 airliner, which can taxi, take off and land autonomously. Boeing has autonomous military systems (like its Loyal Wingman fighter program) but has yet to announce a fully autonomous civilian system.

As various start-ups experiment with autonomous operations for all-new electric and taxi plane designs, Xwing, Reliable Robotics and Merlin Labs observe that regulatory requirements make it more prudent to start with a proven aircraft type and scale it. convert to stand-alone operation. XWing and Reliable Robotics use Cessna Caravans while Merlin Labs focuses on the Beechcraft King Air, both types being light aviation workhorses. All three demonstrated autonomous operation from taxi, takeoff, flight and landing, but with a pilot on board ready to take over in the event of a system failure.

In the case of Xwing and Reliable Robotics, communications with air traffic control are provided by a ground operator. The operator does not fly the aircraft directly and therefore does not manipulate the “stick”, throttles or other controls. Instead, the operator relays instructions to the autonomous aircraft using a simple graphical interface, telling the aircraft where to position itself. The operator does not need to know how to fly an aircraft, take off or land. In principle, the operator therefore does not need to be a fully trained pilot, but only to know air traffic control procedures. In the case of Merlin Labs, the team is experimenting with voice recognition and generation, to allow the autonomous system to interact directly with air traffic control.

The main initial market for the three start-ups is that of short-haul cargo flights. FedEx, UPS, DHL and Amazon observe or get directly involved. Demand from major airlines for pilots is shrinking the cargo pilot pool. Additionally, since a pilot is typically only certified for one aircraft type at a time, autonomous operations would provide much more flexibility since different aircraft types can be used on a daily basis depending on the requirements of the freight traffic.

When will autonomous operations replace pilots in the cockpit? Boeing lost its reputation when its poorly designed automation caused two crashes of its new flagship B737 MAX model, and appears to be proceeding with caution. Autonomous operations would require resilient aerial communications around the world – the mysterious disappearance of Air Malaysia flight MH370 in 2014 illustrates the current gap in coverage. Could an autonomous plane land safely in a river after multiple engine failure immediately after takeoff, as Capt Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger managed to do in 2009 when he ditched US Airways Flight 1549 in distress on the Hudson? In theory, in fact, yes – not only for this, but also for other emergencies.

Autonomous commercial aircraft are coming and will be commercially attractive, reducing flight crew costs, solving pilot shortages and adding flexibility. Paradoxically, ongoing research and development is placing even greater emphasis on the shortage of pilots in the industry: will school leavers really consider becoming a pilot, knowing that autonomous operations will almost certainly occur at some point in their career?

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