A drone and portable launcher made by Boeing subsidiary Insitu in Bingen, Washington. (Insitu)

With pilot shortage, Boeing explores self-flying aircraft

EVERETT — With millions more people flying every year, Boeing is concerned there may not be enough pilots to get everyone where they want to go. The number of commercial pilots could hamper growth and innovation in the aviation industry in the coming decades. That could mean fewer airplane sales or, more worrisome, an increase in accidents.

Taking pilots out of airplanes could be the answer. But solving the technical, logistical and legal challenges will take years of hard work — and they might not be solved, said Mike Sinnett, a Boeing vice president tasked with developing technologies. Sinnett was the chief systems engineer on the 787 Dreamliner program.

Concerns about a shortage of pilots is driving Boeing’s work in self-flying airplanes, he said at a media briefing in June.

Since World War II, military services in the U.S. and other developed countries have been the major training pipeline for airline pilots. Post-Cold War defense cuts, increasingly sophisticated and expensive combat aircraft, and the rise of drones on the battlefield have led to significant declines in the number of military pilots.

Those pilots came to commercial aviation “with a lot of experience and capability for how airplanes handle, stick-and-rudder people, as we say,” Sinnett said. “That is not as true today as it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago, and it will become increasingly less true as time goes on. And this does present a concern for us.”

Boeing is taking seriously the possible pilot shortage and its potential to slow aircraft sales. The company already is exploring self-flying aircraft.

The technology may sound like science fiction, but development is far enough along that Boeing plans to try some elements on a test plane in the summer of 2018, Sinnett said. “The basic building blocks of the technology are clearly available.”

After a commercial jet takes off, autopilot programs do most of the flying, while the flight crew makes sure the system is functioning correctly. The landing often is handed over to the autopilot system, which responds to input from the pilots, the airport’s navigational equipment and other sources to ensure a safe landing, even in low-visibility conditions.

Automated systems have become so good at performing routine flying tasks that the eighth time a Boeing 787 landed, it was an automated landing using GPS, Sinnett said.

Automating navigation, engine thrust control and monitoring the health of an in-flight airplane has made flying the safest way to travel in North America. But it would not be as safe without humans in the cockpit, making sure everything is properly running and ready to take over when something goes wrong, he said.

That is one of the hardest questions to answer for his team, Sinnett said. “Where do we, as an industry, rely on the flight crews to fill the gaps?”

Boeing already has extensive experience with autonomous systems. It has developed underwater robots and military-grade drones. An autonomous aircraft could become reality if it can operate at the “same levels of safety, integrity and availability that we have today — and that is a huge if. That is not a small if,” he said.

Next year, Boeing plans to fly a test jet with an artificial intelligence program making many of the piloting decisions, he said.

Taking pilots out of airplanes would be an incremental process, not a sudden leap. Commercial jets once had three-person flight crews. Now, they have two. The smallest passenger aircraft, prop planes carrying a handful of travelers, rely on a single pilot. So, Sinnett said, why not have a lone pilot fly a jet freighter?

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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