Would planes be safer without pilots? (Thinkstock)
Would planes be safer without pilots?
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To improve airline safety, maybe we need to remove the pilots.

That radical idea is decades away, if it ever becomes a reality. Following the intentional crashing of Germanwings Flight 9525 by the co-pilot, a long-running debate over autonomous, or independent, jets is resurfacing. At the very least, some have suggested allowing authorities on the ground to take control of a plane if there is a rogue pilot in the cockpit.

Such moves might seem logical in the aftermath of this crash. However, industry experts warn that the technology is fraught with problems. Besides, no matter how tragic the deaths of the 149 other passengers and crew were, it was an anomaly. Each year, more than 3 billion people around the globe step aboard some 34 million flights. The number of crashes purposely caused by commercial pilots in the last three decades is fewer than 10.

"Would this really be the wisest investment of our air safety dollars?" asks Patrick Smith. He is a commercial airline pilot of 25 years and author of "Cockpit Confidential."

Smith says that even the newest jets would need an expensive reengineering of their key systems. And that doesn't even tackle any of the concerns over terrorists hacking into the communications link and taking over the jet.

Despite those major technical and psychological hurdles, the concept isn't so farfetched.

There was a time when riding an elevator without an operator seemed unimaginable. Today, we don't think twice about stepping into an empty elevator. Airports have trams without drivers. So do some subway systems. Even cars are starting to take some of that control away from us. The latest models will automatically brake if there is a sudden hazard.

The military already has pilots remotely flying drones that are on the other side of the earth. But making that jump for passenger jets is simply unnerving.

Planes don't operate in the confined space of an elevator shaft or train tracks. And flying has always seemed unnatural. When jets make odd noises or hit a rough patch of turbulence, we eagerly wait for that soothing voice of the pilot to tell us that everything is ok.

Passengers want an expert in the cockpit.

"They want to believe there's somebody in the front who shares their own fate. And thus if anything goes wrong, they will do everything they can to save their own lives," says Mary Cummings. She is a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot who is now a Duke University professor studying autonomous flight.

That's why Cummings and other aviation experts see cargo planes being the first aircraft to fly over the U.S. without pilots. First, the big cargo companies would go from two pilots to one. A team of pilots could remotely assist from the ground. Then all operations would shift to the ground.

Airlines would save on pilot training, salaries, retirement costs and hotel and travel expenses. Plus, ground-based pilots would be able to hand off flights from one to another. It would allow them to work normal eight-hour shifts even if their jet is in the air for 12 hours.

Cummings says such a shift could occur in 10 or 15 years.

"In my mind, it's a done deal," she says. "The business case is so strong."

Pilots are getting further and further removed from their aircraft.

In the past, pilots would pull back on the yoke, which was connected to a cable that ran the length of the plane. That cable would move flaps on the tail called elevators. They caused the plane to climb. Today, there is no cable. When the pilot moves the yoke, a computer sends a signal to the rear of the plane. The elevators move.

The majority of aircraft maneuvers outside of takeoff and landing are already automated. Even when a pilot wants to change course, they program the new directions into the plane's computer instead of making the turns themselves.

If that weren't removed enough, Airbus is exploring a windowless cockpit. The aircraft manufacturer is experimenting with a system of cameras and screens that would give pilots a wider, more-detailed view. It would be one step removed from reality.

Todd Humphreys is a University of Texas professor of aerospace engineering. He says it isn't hard to go one step further and have the pilots watching those same screens from a room on the ground.

"Anything you can control with knobs or buttons, without getting out of your seat, can be done equally well or even better on the ground," Humphreys says.

Humphreys argues that ground-based pilots wouldn't have to deal with time zone changes and jetlag. They would not face uncomfortable airport hotels or even the dehydration that comes after long flights.

Since most flights don't have a problem, "pilots only face extreme challenges once in a blue moon," Humphreys says. So pilots in the cockpit might not be most apt to handle an emergency. Instead, he says you could have a team of specialized experts. They would work in a room with all the remote pilots who could jump in and assist with any emergency. The system might actually reduce the amount of pilot error.

Pilots mostly disagree with that. They say they need to make split-second decisions. Take US Airways Flight 1549. It famously landed on the Hudson River. Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger was the pilot. He had seconds to decide what to do after both engines were disabled by a bird strike.

Critical thinking challenge: What makes cargo planes a better option for testing pilot-less airplanes than planes with passengers?

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COMMENTS (168)
  • Eric0221-YYCA
    4/23/2015 - 09:34 p.m.

    I think that it is dangerous to remove pilots because if airports removed pilots, the future will be lazy and lazier, so if airports don't remove the pilots, the future won't be a lot lazy because there is already the future, because of the hoverboards. Well if pilots really do remove the pilots, I think that the passengers are going to be confused by somebody talking in the speaker.

  • SoleilE-5
    4/23/2015 - 09:55 p.m.

    New technology (self-driving cars, etc) is making the notion of having self-driven planes a realistic invention. Already planes are becoming less dependent on their pilots. While many believe having self-driven planes would be very safe because pilots could not crash the plane on purpose (like the recent Germanwings Flight incident), others argue that the technology is too dangerous to test and too easy for terrorists to hack into.
    I think the notion of having a self-driven plane is terrifying. While the pilot could not crash it on purpose, a terrorist could while staying on the ground. Also, during the first pilot-less flights, there is a huge risk of plane crashes that would kill passengers and those on the ground. This technological advancement would also cause many pilots to lose their jobs.

  • allies-4
    4/23/2015 - 10:10 p.m.

    Many people are considering self piloting planes, ever since the Germanwings flight that was downed by the co-pilot people are unsure of who they can trust. Even if this idea became a reality scientists are saying that it would not be for a few decades. Some people say this could just be more dangerous as it could open an easy gateway for terrorism, and it would be a waste of money for air safety. Other love the idea and are saying what can be controlled by knobs and buttons from inside the plane can just as easily be done from the ground. If this were to happen the cockpit could be used as a base for a special team of experts to communicate with the ground and help with any problem that may arise.

  • KeaganB-1
    4/23/2015 - 10:21 p.m.

    Many people wonder if removing pilots from airplanes would make airplanes safer. This technology is very cool yet it is very far away and may take a couple of decades. This idea has become more realistic after the intentional crashing of the German way midflight 9525 by the copilot. This idea has been shut down though because it is an abnormal money that the plane crash. More than 3 billion people travel by airplane and only about 150 people died in that crash. I thought this article was very interesting but I would be scared to be one of the first to be on an airplane with out a pilot.

  • brandkelly
    4/23/2015 - 11:28 p.m.

    In this article you learn about planes would be safer without pilot if a plan do not have it with Nicholas options for human error care and may make it safer for everybody on board the plane and even on the ground I think that it may be right to have Pines without pilots.

  • SpencerRR-2
    4/24/2015 - 12:09 a.m.

    This article is about the safety of the people in the planes and maybe they should try non pilot air planes. This could be very beneficial but also very bad if it fails. Many people have started think as if this could be good or bad. It all depends on the programming.



    This article was interesting because it showed my they bad things about pilot manned air planes and non robot planes.

  • benjif-2
    4/24/2015 - 12:45 a.m.

    This article is about if planes would be safer to fly on with out a pilot and electronically. If they even tried this idea it would come decades away. There are some plane crashes that are only because of the pilot, and if there was no pilot there would not be any bad crashes if it was made right. A lot of pilots disagree on the topic of this.

  • vincentg-2
    4/24/2015 - 12:59 a.m.

    This has a good idea but I do not think it is the safest thing for passengers although the electronics are safe and have backup system if it fails I would probably trust a pilot who has another expert by their side to save the people on the plane if they mess up. the electronics that are in it are completely safe . Although computers probably can calculate the best route and coins aye with eachother better I still think people on the plane would be unsure. I have mixed feelings about this article. I feel that the human control is more hands on and safe during flight because they ca see surroundings but computer might be safer under pressure.

  • AmandaM-1
    4/24/2015 - 01:05 a.m.

    A very strange question has arose in the world of engineering, do we really need pilots to fly planes? After a tragic crash of a Germanwing, if the authorities had known that this crash was a terrorist attempt they would have been able to control the jet from the ground. This type of technology can be very useful. Lots of pilots think that the type of technology needed is way to far ahead and others think that all the planes need is a little bit of tinkering. One major issue that has been brought up was that terrorists could potentially hack into the control center and crash the planes from a digital device. However, other types of technology around the world are developing. Elevators, trams, and some cars don't require control of a driver. The new advancement would allow pilots to take normal eight hour shifts and would help save money on training, salary, and other expenses. I think it's great that people are trying to improve the airline system in any way possible, however I would feel much safer with a pilot on the plane with me.

  • SabinaS-5
    4/24/2015 - 01:23 a.m.

    This article talks about how it might be safer is there wasn't a co-pilot flying the plane. In my opinion I think that this is a great idea because some pilots may have crazy ideas and crash. I hope that this idea will continue to spires.

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