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'This is your computer speaking. We are now cruising at 580mph and an altitude of 36,000ft...'

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 07/08/2017 By Alan Tovey
'This is your computer speaking. We are now cruising at 580mph and an altitude of 36,000ft...'

It sounds far-fetched but airliners without a human at the controls could be flying passengers through the skies within a decade - saving airlines billions by doing away with pilots and cutting ticket prices for passengers.

Research by analysts at UBS claims the pilotless aircraft could generate $35bn a year in savings for airlines.

The money would come not only from eliminating highly paid pilots who require expensive training, but by making aircraft safer as computers are less likely to make mistakes. US safety data attributes three quarters of accidents to human error.

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Flights would also be more efficient because of the exacting nature of they way they would be flown digitally, meaning less fuel would be used, and aircraft could be flown closer together, allowing air space to be more crowded.

Finally, aircraft would be able to be used more intensively, as they would not require rest days that pilots currently get.

UBS analysts Jarrod Castle and Celine Fornaro point out that similar “technology to remotely control military drones already exists and this could be adapted to civil applications”.

They predict that the first aircraft to embrace self-flying technology will be those carrying only cargo, first removing one of the two pilots normally in the cockpit, then eventually replacing them altogether. Private jets are expected to follow, then helicopters, with airliners the last to adopt the new technology.

However, the research warns that while the savings generated by cutting out pilots might be attractive to to airlines - the concept isn’t so warmly welcomed by passengers.

UBS’s survey of 8,000 people found that 54pc of them wouldn’t want to take a pilotless flight even if it was cheaper and only 17pc said they were likely to - a much lower level than those willing to travel in a driverless car.

British pilots’ association Balpa also warned said it had “concerns” about “the excitement of this futuristic idea” - but noted that cockpits are already highly automated. Currently technology means that the majority flights are under the control of autopilot and modern aircraft can take off and land without a human taking the controls.

But when things go wrong, Balpa said people want a human in the cockpit.

“Automation already supports operations but every single day pilots have to intervene when the automatics don’t do what they’re supposed to,” said Steve Landells, Balpa flight safety specialist. “Computers can fail, and often do, and someone is still going to be needed to work that computer. Most of us own some sort of electronic device that can do amazing things – however, a human is still required to operate it.”

Balpa doubts truly pilotless aircraft will ever be a reality, with it more likely that pilots will control airliners remotely from ground stations - but even this might be enough to reassure passengers.

“Public perception is still uncertain when it comes to automation and many might still be uncomfortable knowing that their life is in the hands of someone sitting in a control tower hundreds or thousands of miles away,” said Mr Landells. “Having a pilot on the aircraft who is as much at risk as the passengers is probably the surest guarantee of safety there can be.”


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