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,
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
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
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.
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.