UND Plants Seed of No-Pilot Airliners

By Scott Spangler on January 11th, 2010

Much has been made lately of the University of North Dakota’s new bachelor’s of science degree in aeronautics with a major in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations, taught at the Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences in Grand Forks.


UND is quick to point out that, right now, the military is the primary career opportunity for UAV pilots (see UAV Pilot Shortage & Military Intelligence), but let’s be honest, the no-pilot airliner is just around the corner.

The US Navy has been using the Category III Automatic Carrier Landing System for years. It’s so reliable Uncle Sam’s Yacht Club has reduced the number of cross deck pendants, from four to three, on its new nuclear bird farms, so the technology exists for demanding flight environments.  It’s only a matter of time.

NextGen-NAS The full implementation of the satellite-based NextGen National Airspace System is a needed component for no-pilot operations, because it completes the “video game” picture of modern aviation. There may well be one more step, however, an interim one-pilot crew, to make traditionalists feel better while the technology proves itself.

Remember that cartoon of the gray-haired senior pilot, sitting in his rocking chair, dog at his side, smoking his pipe and reading the paper? He sits, reads, and rocks  where the flight engineer used to ride side-saddle, behind a pane of glass with this placard: Break in case of emergency. That’s the one-pilot cockpit, and it will have much in common with TSA airport inspections, it looks effective. 

History has been pointing the way to no-pilot airliners ever since human radio operators, navigators, and flight engineers stopped reporting for duty. Those hoping to delay the inevitable will scream and wail and moan about safety and the consequences of not having Capt. Sully in the cockpit. Yeah, that would be true if Capt. Sully was the rule, not the exception. Accident statistics prove that human factors – stupid pilot tricks – are the cause of most aviation accidents, refuting this argument.

In a Minnesota Public Radio story, Mike Nelson, the former fighter pilot who teaches the UND UAV course said, “The last fighter pilot’s already been born. The last fighter is being built.” I’d hazard a guess that the same is true for airline pilots. (And can corporate pilots be far behind?)

Only time will tell if this is a good thing, or a bad thing. But it is going to happen because pilots will not make the decision; as it’s been for for at least three decades, the future is shaped by corporate czars and bottom-line bean counters looking to make a buck by developing and selling the new technology, or to save one by putting it to work. – Scott Spangler


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21 Responses to “UND Plants Seed of No-Pilot Airliners”

  1. Norman Says:

    [quote]but lets be honest, the no-pilot airliner is just around the corner.[/quote]

    Scott, you are having me on? Not a chance for another fifty years if one can be that prophetic. But then I think you are provoking debate eh?



  2. UAV and the demise of the pilot : The Digital Aviator Says:

    […] someone I don’t know but suspect has his tongue firmly rammed into the corner of his cheek. See the post on Jetwhine (and that must be close to his real objective, stirring up controversy) for the authors and more on […]

  3. Robert Mark Says:

    I don’t think Scott is having you on at all Norman. I remember when steam guages were the norm, as well as three-man crews. No one thought those would EVER disappear, but they did.

    Surely we won’t have total automation in my life time, but I do agree with Scott that this idea is growing closer each and every day.

    Passengers will never stand for it? Baloney. Paxs seem willing to accept almost anything if the fare is cheap enough.

    But in answer to your first point … of course we are trying to stir debate. What do you think this is, a newspaper??

  4. Scott Says:

    I’m totally serious. I have nothing to base my timetable on but a hunch, but my guess is that we’ll see the no-pilot airlineer with 25 years or less of the final completion of the Next Generation National Airspace System.

    Actually, the airliners will have a pilot, but like the UAVs flying over today’s warzones, the he or she will be in an office somewhere. And knowing the how the leaders of airlines think, one pilot will probably keep watch over at least a squadron of jets flying their automated rounds like the trains that haul passengers from the main airport terminal to the outlying hubs of gates.

  5. Jim DeLaHunt Says:

    Thank you for an interesting article!

    You appear to have a mistyped link destination, in the third paragraph, at “Category III Automatic Carrier Landing System”. The link destination I see is “http:///”. That’s probably not what you meant.

  6. Norman Says:

    I would agree that the ground and air based technologies are moving ahead and will bring about what you describe one day. The trouble as I see it is that as the air side advances, the systemic demands keep multiplying.
    A fully automated transport jet is a possibility now given the acceptance that a ground based operative will be required to manage the device. Where is the saving to be had?
    To reach the ‘fire and forget’ with 300 people aboard really is a giant leap and one that we may not deem necessary or desirable simply because we can do it.
    I think systems will become smarter and the pilots role taken further in the direction of management through automated systems.
    Humans are awful monitors but they have massive value as free and innovative thinkers, something that will take AI systems many years to catch up on imho. Look again at the management of humans on board and you have another little can of worms… scuse the pun.

    Scott and Rob, I love science fiction and have no ego driven hangups about (is it) Steve Canyon (Dan Dare in the UK) being on hand to snatch the craft from the jaws of death, I just see the premature posturing of the UAV/remotely piloted vehicle jockeys as being based on a febrile excitement with technology rather than a firm base in proper extrapolation of likely progress.

    So there! LOL

  7. Dr. Boyd Falconer Says:

    Remotely piloted commercial operations is a distinct possibility, but not a near term commercial reality.

    Here’s a thought: perhaps with the aircraft’s pilot/s on the ground there will be renewed career opportunities for Flight Engineers…? Or am I opening a new debate?

  8. Norman Says:

    On reading my post above I think I popped a little hard at the UAV guys, no offence meant fellas’.

    But – there is a world of difference between lurking over a battle-space managing a craft/mission through a line of wired-in specialists and dispatching an aircraft full of passengers with an array of technology where the forward hold used to be. Leaving those air breathing bipeds with a vise-like grip on their lives behind is a quantum leap.

    Automation and intelligent systems are going to progressively stop us from accidentally killing ourselves with increasing success. Birds will still fly and whilst we may find better ways of avoiding them, the can full of kit that would have helped a virtual Captain Sullenberger find the Hudson and decide to land on it simply will not be aboard.
    An emotive and now well worn example but we keep coming across the unanticipated fast balls in flying that few if any had anticipated. Or shall we play the averages and statistical game with our passengers – with your wife and kids perhaps?

    No, I think we have a huge distance to travel before we even get close to sending pilots home. Earth resources/innerspace satellite substitutes in the form of high altitude cruisers to start, further military developments then perhaps freighters for a couple of three decades with services across sparsely populated routes. Yes, to concede a point, it may well come one day, but I still think the risk and investment will not be deemed to be worth it with those precious pink bodies that pay for the ride. I see it as a blind alley – a bit of a red herring.

    Again, only another opinion gentlemen.

  9. Moe Zurgerburger Says:

    Even with the cost savings that the airlines will realize by eliminating pilots from the cockpits I’ll bet that they’ll still be charging $25 for the first check bag.

  10. Norman Says:

    It was always fascinating to watch the interaction of flight engineers with pilots on the flight deck. They were subtly different to us and seldom concerned about sticking their oar in when they felt it was needed.
    One used to hang a piece of parsley from their lunch tray on the standby compass on the Tristar and ask new co-pilots what that meant….

    Yes Boyd, they most assuredly had and would probably relish a new role wouldn’t they bless them?

  11. Rob Mark Says:

    I never said it would be easy, but the crew options would be enormous, would they not. No more worrying about someone running out of a duty day, no more pilot fatigue because of multiple time zone hopping.

    Just yank Norman out of the chair when his shift is over and toss in Rob who is fresh on duty.

    Note: The experience comparison here IS highly fictional!

  12. Norman Says:

    Nobody asked about the parsley…. :-/

  13. Scott Says:

    I’ll bite, Norman. What’s up with the parsley?

    To the subject at hand, I don’t think we’re that far away. I’d compare UAV technology today to where instrument flying was when Jimmy Doolittle climbed under the hood and took Lawrence Sperry’s gyro instruments for their first blind flight.

    On an established route, the only real deviations would be for weather, and because the system would have a wider view (and, hoping things would get better, wouldn’t wait until the last minute to deviate), the system could easily handle them. Certainly the unpredictability of combat UAV missions are challenging.

    I really wonder about the pilot training needed. Aside from takeoff and landing, pilots in airliners and advanced technology GA flying machines don’t do a lot of it. After takeoff they let the flight director take over. And if they pay attention to the system’s arrival announcement, they “push the arrival” button and take over, maybe, to actually land.

    And let’s not forget what fly-by-wire has done for us. No matter how hark the pilot pulls, the computer is in control and won’t let bad things happen. Isn’t that part of the UAV building block system, too?

    Certainly, this wonderful discussion includes a lot of supposition and what ifs, but what Moe said is undeniable: the airlines will assess fees for the UAV service. As they are on your cable TV bill, there will be a whole bunch of them, and no one will really be able to explain what they are for, aside from emptying the passengers pockets.

  14. Norman Says:

    Well, on dangling piece of parsley from said location the flight engineer then says something like, “What does this mean then ace?”

    Puzzled the newbie who say, “dunno, haven’t a clue”

    “Sky parsley obscured of course!”

    As I said, flight engineers are a little strange and certainly very… different. LOL

  15. Norman Says:

    Further… I am with your general pitch, but for me the key word is justification, perhaps more to the point – motivation. As you know carriers will spend money where they have to – and nowhere else. Technology has produced innovations that we could utilise to massive effect operationally – trouble is, unless it saves money there simply ain’t a case for it to appear. I could bore you with examples.

    For Boeing or Airbus to pursue a developmental line there needs to be an infrastructure that will support it and and what is more important a demand from the airlines for the product. Pilots are not that large a part of the cost of the operation, someone pitched 17% for one carrier I flew for.

    Where will the driver come from for our highly expensive fully automated airliner come from?

    The military applications are of course an entirely different bunch of bananas.

  16. Norman Says:

    Please don’t let me dominate the comments here gents. I will wrap up to give others a chance.

  17. Ken Says:

    Here’s an aviation column I wrote for the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale in 2003:

    Would you board an airliner that had no pilot up front?
    As airplanes become increasingly automated, an intriguing question is whether passengers would accept having a computer at the controls.
    You would just have to hope its name isn’t Hal.
    (You’ll remember he was the mischievous computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)
    Aviation experts, including engineers at Boeing, say yes: Passengers routinely will fly on pilotless airliners in the next 30 to 50 years.
    In lieu of a flight crew, operators sitting at computers on the ground would fly your plane with a few clicks of a mouse. They might even control two or more flights at the same time.
    In short, rather than a captain with thousands of hours of flight time, your life could be in the hands of a computer nerd.
    On the surface, it’s not that far-fetched. Many planes already fly with little or no help from humans.
    For instance, the military deploys Unmanned Aerial Vehicles that can execute surgical missile strikes on enemy targets or fly halfway around the world on surveillance missions.
    These weird looking aircraft have no windows, no cockpit and no people on board. They are guided by operators with both feet on the ground — or kicked up on their desks.
    Moreover, modern-day airliners are so loaded with autopilots, computers and navigational systems that they can land automatically in zero visibility. In fact, they occasionally do because on-board computers are less accident-prone in poor weather than a pilot.
    But I’ll tell you what.
    I, for one, want at least one, and preferably two, human beings up front no matter how error-prone they might be compared to machines.
    See, I don’t even like to ride in those automated trains they have at such airports as Miami and Tampa. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking: What if the train’s computer breaks down? Who’s going to slam on the brakes?
    I’m thinking: Who’s watching over the computer?
    Or in the case of an airliner, if something goes wrong, who’s going to land this thing?
    Inson Kim, spokeswoman for Miami International Airport, who doesn’t much like to fly, put it more succinctly.
    “Someone has to be up there who has a stake in the outcome of the flight,” she said.
    I couldn’t agree more. Why leave a plane’s controller on the ground? If he so much as directs a flight into turbulence, he should be along for the ride.
    Passenger confidence, or a lack thereof, is only one of many problems that a pilotless plane poses.
    For starters, the entire air traffic control system would have to be overhauled. Controllers would have to communicate with those guys sitting behind computers rather than real pilots.
    Just instructing planes to taxi to their respective runways — without any collisions — would be tricky.
    Then every flight faces a number of variables, such as bad weather, mechanical problems and passenger emergencies, all of which might require snap decisions.
    Computers might be programmed to handle all of these factors, but sometimes you need human judgment.
    For instance, what if a fully automated plane suddenly lost power in one of its engines during takeoff? A computer would be programmed to continue the flight if the plane already has reached takeoff speed.
    A pilot might reach that point-of-no-return airspeed — and still abort if enough runway remained.
    Admittedly, automated planes would save the airlines a ton of money.
    Whereas pilots are paid handsomely — senior captains earn as much as $245,000 a year — computers would work for nothing, aside from their initial purchase price.
    And computers don’t demand pay raises or go on strike.
    Further, pilots get sick and need replacements. Sometimes, they get tired after too many layovers. And they are allowed to fly only a certain number of hours per month.
    Computers, on the other hand, suffer none of these problems.
    Add it all up, and airline managers probably fantasize about telling their pilots to take a flying leap. But managers also know that when it comes to passenger confidence, money is no object.
    What I think will happen in the future is that computers will be asked to do even more cockpit chores, ease pilot workloads and make flying safer.
    But I don’t think we’ll ever see Hal at the controls.

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  21. Fred Wilson Says:

    Anything UND says is garbage. They are known in the industry as being a joke. They do know how to get lots of gov money.

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