Paper, Airplanes, and Automated Aviation

By Scott Spangler on September 7th, 2020

Rarely are the dots so closely connected to an epiphany that turns a train of thought on the future of automated aviation in the opposite direction.



The first dot was an August 29 New York Times story, Humans Take a Step Closer to ‘Flying Cars’, which discussed the first flight of the SkyDrive, a single-seat quadcopter. Its batteries enabled a flight of just a few minutes at an altitude of 3 meters. The article said that it was a long way from the necessary useful load and endurance necessary to make such a flying car practical, not to mention the necessary automated aviation and air traffic control tech and operator training that would make flying car operation safe for the masses. Being a perpetual skeptic, I doubted that the flying car dreamers would every achieve this.

The next dot was another New York Times story, August 31’s Drone Delivery? Amazon Moves Closer With FAA Approval. Amazon’s earning a Part-135 air carrier certificate for its fleet of Prime Air drones took the next step toward realizing the dream of a workable flying car and its cousin, urban air mobility. In submitting the evidence of the safety management systems and other information needed to earn a Part 135 certificate, and to demonstrate those operations to the FAA, earning the certificate was an “important step” in developing its automated aviation delivery technology.

amazon drone

Amazon Prime Air

Company officials offered pragmatic conclusions on the future. The article quoted Prime Air Vice President David Carbon: Earning the Part 135 certificate “indicates the FAA’s confidence in Amazon’s operating and safety procedures for autonomous drone delivery service that one day will deliver around the world. [Amazon will] continue to develop and refine our technology to fully integrate delivery drones in the airspace, and work closely with the FAA and other regulators around the world to realize our vision of 30-minute delivery.”

Finally, there was the story from Flying (and other sources), Xwing Flies Cessna Caravan Autonomously. This takes the Amazon drone delivery to the next level, and the tech involved seems related to Garmin’s Autoland system, which the FAA has approved for the Piper M600 and Cirrus Vision Jet. These accomplishments further eroded my skepticism of near-term arrival of pilotless commercial aviation.



The epiphany that brought my skepticism to a dead stop and turned it around was in the opening pages of Mark Kurlansky’s fascinating book, Paper: Paging Through History. What’s the connection? “Technology does not change society, society changes technology,” he wrote, explaining that, regardless of its form, technology is a practical application of knowledge. “There is a tendency to imagine that technology is a Pandora’s Box, that once a new way is initiated, it unavoidably falls into use and is unstoppable. But when a technology is invented that doesn’t correspond to the needs of a society, it falls into obsolescence.”

When it comes to commercial aviation, what is most important to the society of decision makers will become transparent on October 1. That’s when the federal airline bailout requirement to not fire or furlough employees expires. United Airlines has already queued up more than 16,000 employees, American Airlines also seems to be in this queue, as do other airlines.

As has been the case since the 1980s, what are most important to society are the bottom line and the benefits accruing to corporate shareholders and the executive to reap the bonuses and the for-hire politicians who support this now entrenched way of life. Employees who create and provide the goods and services, and the customers who consume them, are little more than economic fields to be harvested or sacrificed as the bottom line and dividends demand. To this end, automated aviation that does not need pilots cannot get here soon enough, and it will be here in good time. –Scott Spangler, Editor


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7 Responses to “Paper, Airplanes, and Automated Aviation”

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  4. Joe Sesto Says:

    This ties in with yesterday’s theme.

    That article reminded me of a similar manned flight made for a critical component required to complete a space mission.

    Years ago I flew out of the airport (Lompoc) next to Vandenberg AFB. I was an officer and minority stockholder in the FBO…and leased back our 310R II to them. One day a major aerospace company chartered it to fly to the LAX cargo terminal to pickup a pressurized can of lube that was needed before they could launch a satellite from VAFB. That lube can easily cost the taxpayers $400-$500 to get it from Baltimore to LAX to VAFB in 1980 dollars.

  5. David St. George Says:

    Another “dot” to connect – Autonomous cargo flight to oil rig:

  6. Lawrence Says:

    No doubt the manned pilot is at the root of this bottom line argument. As a 25 year USAF A10 pilot I had the sublime pleasure of flying most of my career in a highly dynamic environment with very little automation. It was very challenging and satisfying work. I tried the airlines after retirement and lasted 2 years. It was tedious, fatiguing in a bad way, and Not challenging at all. Over shooting a destination by 150 miles, watching an auto land system put a 737 in the dirt 300 feet short if the runway, taking an active runway as another aircraft is on short final are actual incidents that have occurred with manned 121 airliners. All due to complacency. Not a problem for a computer. 98% of all accidents and incidents are due to pilot error. Consider the cost savings in dollars and lives when accidents and incidents are reduced by 98%.

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