Freighters without Pilots are no Longer a Pipedream

Airbus could become the first aircraft manufacturer producing unmanned aircraft. They are technically easier to realize than self-driven cars, stated the company’s Chief Tom Enders at the internet conference Digital Life Design - DLD that opened its doors on 17 January in Munich.
Ironically enough, it was Lufthansa boss Carsten Spohr, a former pilot himself, who reacted skeptically to Enders’ advance.

Airbus Chief Tom Enders believes that unmanned aviation will prevail  -  photo: DLD
Airbus Chief Tom Enders believes that unmanned aviation will prevail - photo: DLD

Severe air traffic disruptions caused by pilot strikes, overtired cockpit crews putting themselves and their aircraft in danger or incidents, respectively accidents resulting from human error could be a thing of the past in the foreseeable future. Aircraft without cockpit personnel is the vision propagated by Airbus “Major” Tom Enders.

Ground controllers take over command
What he brought to the attendee’s minds accounts especially for cargo flights that could be operated from A to B or A via B to C without anyone sitting on the flight deck. Instead, all systems would be permanently monitored from departure to arrival by a group of controllers through constant data flow. If needed, the experts, mostly pilots and aircraft engineers themselves can interfere and correct the course of the jetliners or eliminate technical hiccups should they occur by electronic data transfer.
“It might take 10, maybe 20 years until we will see the first unmanned freighters crossing the skies and another decade or even two in passenger traffic,” predicts Ulf Weber, Managing Director of freight airline AeroLogic. His estimate is fully in line with that of Herr Enders who stated at the DLD meet that unmanned aircraft are technically easier to implement than self-propelled cars, because traffic within cities or on highways is much more complex than navigating a plane autonomously and safely from airport to airport.

Passengers remain reluctant
In aviation, this accounts particular for the field of cargo because many passengers would refrain from boarding a plane whose cockpit seats remain empty from takeoff until landing. This psychological obstacle is extremely hard to overcome by airlines and manufacturers.   
This, despite the fact that nearly 90 percent of all aircraft accidents involved pilot errors, not technical failures. Having said this Tom Enders wrapped up his remarks by stating that unmanned flying would make aviation much safer in future.


Will lower costs kick off the era of unmanned freighters?
Once pilots are dispensable, except for the members working in centralized supervising teams, airlines could save quite some money. Also, most unmanned aircraft, except for those that transport live animals, wouldn’t need pressurized cabins anymore which weigh a lot, leading to reduced fuel burn. Thirdly, planes could operate in higher altitudes, due to their lower take-off weight making them lighter. 
Putting all of this together, the first carrier that operates unmanned cargo aircraft will have a cost advantage over his competitors.


Manager Ulf Weber reminds us that the technical requirements for future unmanned freighter flights are in place already, namely the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems – RPAS, used already today by the military. managed and supervised by the ground watchdogs. “Supervised by ground controllers it’s basically similar to rail transport which is in place already and works very efficiently.”

Spohr remains reserved
Lufthansa Chief Carsten Spohr spoiled the party to a certain degree by doubting that the unmanned age of flying will come soon, at least in passenger traffic. The challenge in aviation, he said, is to develop systems that work error-free. For most travelers, pilots are still indispensable and will remain being a key factor in aviation, Carsten exclaimed. This he said despite of the fact that Lufthansa’s many pilot strikes in recent times have cost his airline a fortune, leaving hundred thousands of passengers stranded.


Heiner Siegmund

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