The aviation industry could soon embrace autonomous piloting — if anyone wants to fly in a plane without the reassuring voice of a captain to calm them down at the first sign of turbulence.
Pilotless planes might come to an airstrip near you as soon as 2025, according to an extensive new UBS report. The Swiss bank took a deep dive into the potentially paradigm-shifting technology and came away with some exciting stats, along with one discouraging caveat.
The self-flying planes could save the aviation industry up to $35 billion annually and make flights safer and more efficient, but only 17 percent of the 8,000 people surveyed globally would be willing to fly in one.
Half of the respondents said that they wouldn't buy a pilotless flight ticket even if it was cheaper than the alternative — a very real possibility, according to the report, which found that ticket prices could be reduced by 11 percent by replacing human pilots.
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The concern over pilotless planes broke down along generational and international lines. Younger, more educated respondents from the ages of 18 to 34 were more willing to take the plunge (or, rather, were less concerned about taking a literal plunge) in a pilotless plane. People in countries like Germany and France were unlikely to be receptive to the self-flying aircraft, while respondents in the U.S. were more open to the idea.
The respondents who were willing to consider the autonomous flights were still a minority even within their demographic groups, however, so the aviation industry has major PR work to do before it will be able to introduce the technology to the ticket-buying public.
It's similar to the trepidation surrounding autonomous systems that has consumers largely leery of self-driving cars, but on an even bigger scale, with a mode of transportation that's much less accessible than the vehicles people drive on the road every day.
There are efforts to brighten the public's perception of the AI that powers self-driving technology, like a DARPA-funded project at Oregon State University. Other pilot-free aviation programs could help too, like Dubai's autonomous taxi service, which is primed to launch a trial program later this year.
But a two-seater drone taking a zip around a city is a far cry from a massive commercial airliner flying over state lines, even if current flight systems are largely automated during takeoff and landing. There will have to be some sort of sustained proof of the autonomous systems' safety for consumers to trust the new planes.
UBS analysts expect the effort to familiarize the public with commercial self-piloting crafts will begin at that 2025 target date with autonomous cargo planes, which could demonstrate how the systems can safely fly from point A to B without a hitch. A next step could be to remove pilots gradually, shifting from a two-person cockpit to one person monitoring the system before phasing out humans entirely.
There are billions of dollars on the line for the aviation industry, which is expected to face a worldwide pilot shortage as roughly 600,000 new captains will be needed through 2035. Self-piloted planes will need to happen somehow, then — so once the tech is ready, it's up to the airlines to convince the public that a computer can safely pilot their airplanes.