Drop the pilot - should future flight really be automated?

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton August 3, 2022
Inmarsat’s Anthony Spouncer discusses why some innovators want aviation to be automated and human-free.


News that the UK is building a ‘drone superhighway’ set the industry buzzing like an Amazon delivery copter last week. As we reported, Project Skyway is being developed by a consortium of businesses led by British unified traffic management (UTM) provider Altitude Angel, with 265 kilometres (165 miles) of air corridors linking university hotspots in the Midlands, supported by a network of ground-based sensors and comms.

Exciting stuff and a promising venture. But while some applications of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are clear, with obvious advantages in industries such as media, agriculture, engineering, energy, logistics, security, search and rescue, offshore maintenance, and first-mile or remote-location deliveries, the huge claims being made for drones are often baffling. 

Among them are a predicted £45 billion uplift to the British economy, with 900,000 UAVs aloft by 2030 in the UK alone, according to government predictions. That would equate to millions of flights daily in UK airspace, estimates that are rooted in the concept of delivery drones dropping packages on city doorsteps. Is that a future we really want?

As previously reported, common-sense says that last-mile urban deliveries by drone are a dumb idea – absurd, noisy, dangerous, and inconvenient for everyone except the recipients. One that would create at least as many problems as it solves. So why does it persist in innovators’ minds?

But the bigger question is why the robotics industry seems determined to automate skilled jobs as well, including via pilotless planes and crewless ships. As Dr Anders Sandberg of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute once said at a robotics seminar:

If you can describe what you do for a living, then your job can – and will – be automated.

But why? What’s wrong with humans? We can’t all spend our lives with our feet up having Socratic thoughts about the universe while robots do the work (that’s my job, back off!). People need to earn a living.

Anthony Spouncer is Senior Director of UAV & Unmanned Traffic Management at satellite giant Inmarsat, one of the infrastructure providers that will help support the future flight economy – though satellite connectivity is expensive and requires heavy onboard equipment. (Most drones will use mobile networks to connect, which carries its own risks.)

Speaking of the Project Skyway launch he said:

We expect there to be over 10 million commercial UAVs in flight by 2030, and an estimated 600,000 of these will be flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), outside the [ground-based] pilot’s visibility. This is in addition to an already crowded airspace in many parts of the world – especially in European skies. 

Drones promise huge opportunities, but also present safety and security challenges that need to be addressed to make the most of these investments. Before we can make a real success of those investments, we need two things: new rules and regulations, and a better public awareness of what benefits drones will bring to our lives.

Quite. But for Spouncer, whose own background is in technologies that support traditional aviation, the future won’t be so much about small drones, but ultimately about bigger, remotely piloted or autonomous aircraft – devices that encroach on skilled human jobs. 

He says:

One of the things Inmarsat is focusing on is changing the terminology to ‘uncrewed vehicles’, under the banner of advanced air mobility, which is autonomous cargo, heavy-duty deliveries, air taxis, and wider mobility. 

In those scenarios, there's a need for a UAV to be identified, to fly on a predefined flight plan, for controllers to quickly talk to the pilot, even if that pilot is remote and somewhere else in the world, or when air traffic control itself is somewhere else, because it wouldn’t need to be regional. 

I agree with you about last-mile deliveries, but first-mile could be key. We could have fleets of unmanned VTOL [vertical take-off and landing] aircraft flying down air corridors. But once we get to urban hubs, it’s about how you do the last mile: zero-emission zones with bikes, scooters, and electric vehicles, and so on; a quiet, calm environment that would work nicely. 

It will come to a point where people won't want hundreds of thousands of drones in the sky, though the beauty is that many could fly at altitudes where you don’t see or hear them.

OK, but much industry discussion concerns future flight being uncrewed, with autonomous, automated, or remotely piloted air platforms. Many commentators make similar predictions for shipping, with uncrewed container ships crossing our oceans. Why are innovators determined to remove skilled humans – professionals with decades of experience – from the job market? What is the advantage of big delivery platforms being uncrewed?

One issue is that big aeroplanes and ships are not environmentally friendly or sustainable, explains Spouncer; it is simpler, with the limits of battery technology, to create smaller, lighter electric vehicles. Without people onboard, those platforms could travel further and faster using less energy; they could also carry more.

But another is the biological and regulatory limitations of human pilots:

There are insufficient and underutilized pilots, plus underutilized aircraft and inflexible schedules. With commercial pilots, it’s only 900 hours a year maximum [roughly one tenth of a year] that they’re legally allowed to fly. They need sleep, obviously, they can't be fatigued. So, they're protected by law to make sure they never fly more than X hours back-to-back, including to and from work.

A human’s needs

Large planes typically have two pilots onboard, a captain and first officer, who will often be on standby for long periods and required to go into work at short notice, which creates more risks and problems. Meanwhile, planes are sometimes flown empty so airlines can keep their airport slots.

Spouncer continues:

With commercial air cargo, they’re typically in the 600 to 800 hours per annum bracket. Then when you come down to the feeders, the likes of FedEx and UPS, pilots are usually down to about 300 hours per year. And when you come down even further to the small aircraft, such as small feeder cargo between airports, those pilots typically only fly about 150 hours a year [less than one week in the air annually].

There is also a shortage of pilots, due to Covid. And pay rises, even in regional airlines, are now staggering: 60-90% for captains, just to keep them onboard, as there’s such a shortage. There’s almost a pilot bidding war, and yet the pilots are then underutilized. So, there are a lot of cost pressures: commercial, environmental, and sustainability related. If you want to fly a plane 20 hours a day, you need three lots of crew to do it.

So, pilots cost big money, fair enough. But these are the same arguments made for stripping away all skilled jobs: humans are expensive, they need food, water, sleep, and holidays. They get sick and make mistakes, and all this eats into profit margins. 

But with inflation soaring and wages stagnating, shouldn’t we be focused on giving more people decent, well-paid, fulfilling jobs, and worry less about the profits of wealthy mega-corps? Look what’s happening in the energy markets: record, multibillion-dollar profits and customers who are having to choose between heat or food.

Spouncer predicts that the pilots of the future will be trained differently and sit in control rooms, operating fleets of 10 or more aircraft remotely. But most pilots want to be in the air in planes, not sitting at desks with joysticks. That’s why they’re pilots. 

Would desk-based pilots actually be safer? Logic suggests they would be working longer hours, perhaps in stressed, sweat-shop conditions, and be less well paid – not to mention prone to fatigue and boredom while the UAVs they are controlling swoop above people’s heads, houses, hospitals, and schools. That seems like a recipe for accidents.

Don’t we need fewer desk jobs? Should humans’ prime function really be serving the interests of machines? And can’t we have jobs that are fun anymore, or that involve engaging with the real world at first hand?

My take

Put simply: Would you rather fly a plane or a desk? But then again, the planet is on fire. Discuss.

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