Recent years have seen a considerable buzz build up around the prospect of automated transport. But in the aviation industry at least, this revolution has been going on for a while.
Every commercial flight, including those undertaken by private jets, takes place with some aspects being handled entirely by a computer.
As artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated, it’s a near-certainty that a greater portion of piloting duties will be handed over to automated systems.
In an interview with the Telegraph in 2015, one Monarch pilot claimed that the autopilot “does around 90 per cent of the flying”.
The job of the pilot, for the most part, is restricted to take off and landing. They’ll supervise the autopilot, and step in when things go wrong.
The industry has witnessed a precipitous fall in fatal accidents over the past few decades, and automation is largely responsible.
What about take-off and landing?
At present, take-off and landing is mostly handled by human pilots. Where landings are concerned, there’s already been some steps toward automation, in the form of “autoland” systems.
These combine radio altimeters and a few other components with the autopilot, and are called upon when the plane needs to land in thick fog and other visibility-reducing conditions.
Given the pressure on the pilots to carry minimal fuel, circling indefinitely in the hope of better visibility isn’t often an option.
We should expect these systems to grow more sophisticated in the future, in the same way that autopilot itself did.
Which aircraft are likely to be automated?
The autopilots found in smaller planes range from the very simple to the incredibly sophisticated.
The more advanced private jets will come equipped with altitude selectors, GPS integration, and other features once restricted to larger commercial airliners.
Given the reluctance of mainstream passengers to step aboard a pilotless plane, it might be that the first fully-automated flights are undertaken by smaller operators before being rolled out to the larger ones.
In aircraft of every size, failures are extremely rare, particularly when contextualised against the vast amount of global air traffic.
Even now, the autopilot does a better job at keeping a plane level and on track than a human pilot ever could – and this state of affairs is, on the whole, only likely to improve as computing power increases and more test-flights are conducted.
What does the future hold?
Behind the scenes, more and more automation is being introduced into the aviation industry. And for the most part, that’s a good thing: human error can cost human lives. Will we ever be able to dispense with the human pilot altogether?
This final step would involve convincing a sceptical public, whose money keeps the plane in the sky. As such, we can expect human pilots to remain in a supervisory capacity even after every part of the flight, from take-off to landing, is handed over to a machine.