A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

 January 2013   



The city of Vancouver, British Columbia hosted the world exposition in 1986, aptly named Expo 86.  As a legacy project of the fair and it’s theme of “Transportation and Communication”, the Vancouver Sky Train was constructed.  The initial line extended from the Waterfront station downtown out to the suburb of New Westminster.  It has been expanded in the years following to include around 75 miles of track.  By 2010, the Sky Train Network annually carried over 117 million passengers, with the highest ridership during the 2010 Winter Olympics.   

Many cities utilize a subway system of public transportation.  The Vancouver choice was to build above ground, and to elevate much of the track.  Because the trains move above the traffic in the busiest sections of the city, commute times are shorter than busses or in private vehicles.  The train also affords one of the best views of this beautiful city that a traveler can find.  For that reason alone it makes for a wonderful attraction for tourists.  Many times I have “guided” visitors, friends and family on a tour of Vancouver and its suburbs, on the Sky Train.  When my daughters were young, it was the highlight of their visits to the city.   

The trains are quick, quiet and for the most part run trouble-free.  Officials boast they have an on-time record of over 95%, which in a city like Vancouver, is commendable.

One of the reasons it is so efficient is the entire system of trains is automated.  There are no drivers, engineers or conductors on board.  It is truly a computer-controlled operation.

And to a hands-on type of person like a pilot, it is both scary and amazing. 

So why am I telling the story of an automated rapid transit system in an aviation publication?  It’s because someday, and sooner than we might think, we could be passengers in aircraft that are automated, under the control of computers and a pilot on the ground.   

Drones and what are referred to as UAV’s or unmanned aerial vehicles, are now commonly deployed in situations that are sometimes hazardous to humans.  They’re used for military purposes, border surveillance, forest fire protection, and so on.  For the most part, these vehicles are relatively small, certainly not capable of carrying a payload that would include several passengers.  But that application may not be far off. 

In January in the U.K., there’s a project underway utilizing a Jetstream 31 commuter aircraft flying trials to demonstrate autonomous flight systems controlled by a remotely based pilot.  In the initial stages, two safety pilots will be on-board, while the plane is “flown” by a pilot on the ground in conjunction with onboard systems.  The tests aim to demonstrate that navigation, avoiding other aircraft and responding to ATC instructions is possible with the ground-based pilot.   

Don’t expect this to lead directly to passenger operations, yet!  While passenger flights may not lose their pilots for some time, researchers currently believe commercial cargo flights may lose them sooner if the technology proves reliable and safe through similar tests and smaller-scale real-world applications. For passenger flights, it is more likely that such autonomous systems will first serve as a backup for a pilot flying in the aircraft. 

I’m not sure just where the motivation for a project like this comes from.  It’s true that pilots are usually well paid, but in the overall operation of an airline commuter flight, that must be considered one of the more “minor expenses”.   It seems to me the cost of the airplane itself, the fuel, maintenance and even the taxes airlines pay to governments would add up to a significantly larger piece of the expenses pie the companies face.   

If that is the case, then perhaps their thinking leans in the direction of safety and reliability.  The record of automated rapid transit systems such as Sky Train in Vancouver, already proves those points.  But am I wrong to think that flying an airliner full of passengers half-way around the world is much more complicated than getting a train to start and stop, open and close its doors and stay on time between stations a couple of miles apart?  Airliners are already capable of takeoffs, landings, and navigating under the direction of their flight computers, but somehow the whole idea of not having a pilot on-board is unnerving, to put it mildly.  In my case, it would be much more than worry.  I’d call it outright fear, and grounds to cancel my flight.   

Maybe they’re on the right track though.  We know that the biggest cause of aviation accidents is pilot error.  So eliminating the pilot, the so-called weak link in the chain, is arguably a sane solution.  Someday, our yet unborn children will travel without concern in aircraft flown by computers and directed by the pilot who is remotely located.  It may indeed be no different from remotely controlled trains.  At this stage, the airliner appears to be destined to be flying without the pilot on board even before our cars are capable of operating safely without drivers. 

In the early stages of this research, they are using flight simulators and air-traffic-control data. But eventually it must be proven that their systems can work in the real world—even during emergency landings. In order to satisfy risk-averse aviation regulators, the researchers are working with Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority to certify a virtual pilotless aircraft for use in civil airspace. The intention is not to certify an actual aircraft, but for both sides to learn what will be required to do so.

Some of this technology being developed is also likely to find their way into manned aircraft as a backup for pilots, and possibly for cars too. Systems that provide automatic braking and freeway-lane control, for instance, are already found in many types of car. These features take cars some of the way towards autonomy. But cars capable of operating in traffic without the driver making the decisions, share the hurdles with planes flying without pilots on board.  They will somehow have to fit in with existing infrastructure and regulations before they can take off. 

 In the meantime, let’s keep enjoying our freedom to fly.  Like telephone operators, train engineers, customer service agents, bank tellers, town criers, and so many other obsolete careers, our grandchildren may never know what an airline pilot is, or was. 

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