Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, UAV, are a reality in the military arena, either flying on a pre-programmed mission or remotely guided from an Earth based pilot.
From a technology point of view it is not a big step to have a commercial airplane flying itself, they already are –almost- flying by themselves most of the time using the autopilot. There are regulatory, as well as psychological, hurdles to overcome but the road is open.
However, transforming one of today’s commercial aircraft into a self operating aircraft is more complex.
This is why some researchers are exploring the possibility of creating a robot that can replace the pilot on current aircraft. No change will be required to the aircraft apart from installing the robot in the cockpit.
A first step may be the one taken by the DARPA ALIAS (Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System) program, aiming at replacing the copilot with a robot that can perform all flying operation that might be required.
The robot looks at all instruments and read the gauges, look at switches and see if they are in the correct position and if not can take action. It is programmed to learn from experience so it gets used to the aircraft it is flying and gets better to it. So far it is not able to look outside of the cockpit to appreciate the beauty of a sunset (which is a pity but it is not an issue) nor to spot a hurdle on the runway (and this is an issue).
The experiment is focusing on a Cessna aircraft (see image). The goal is to respond to the shortage of pilot, making it possible to fly a commercial plane with a single pilot having the robot as a back up (or the other way round, the robot normally flying the plane and the pilot sitting there … just in case). This is interesting since it brings to the fore the issues of seamless cooperation between human and machines, something we are addressing in the new FDC Initiative “Symbiotic Autonomous Systems”.
A more radical approach is taken by KAIST, the South Korea’s Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, aiming straight at a robot that can sit in the captain seat and fly the plane, see clip).
They are planning a humanoid robot, PIBOT – Pilot Robot, that can seat in the pilot seat and mimic all actions a real pilot would do to fly the aircraft, and converse with the air traffic control as well, following the directions given. So far I would not like to be greeted by PIBOT as I board a plane. The success rate in landing (simulated) is 80% which apparently makes researchers happy and confident this is the way to go but it feels a bit too scary to me.