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With the recent advances in drone and remote control technology, why are there still commercial and military pilots?

I understand that there can be some serious tactical advantages to human pilots in military operations, but for patrol and commercial flights what are the advantages of a human pilot in the aircraft as opposed to a drone or a remotely controlled airplane?

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I fully expect aerial photography and powerline patrol to go 100% drone within our lifetime. –  Steve V. Feb 19 '14 at 3:33
Simple answer: because we trust humans than machines. –  shasi kanth Feb 19 '14 at 8:21
I would think that a drone would never be capable of things some amazing pilots can do in the face of disaster. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gimli_Glider –  asawyer Feb 19 '14 at 14:15
I think any aircraft that carries people on it will always have a pilot. A drone is better because it is smaller, lighter, it can pull 50gs, and it doesn't need life support systems. This is bad news for fighter pilots, and some cargo pilots. However, as long there are airplanes big enough to carry people that require the space, the life support systems, and the like you might as well have a pilot on board you aren't really saving much spending 10x on automation and selling one or two more tickets. And then of course there is this: –  p1l0t Feb 20 '14 at 0:22
One of the main reasons the military uses drones is because they can then have zero people on board, which gives a whole lot of advantages over having any people on board (chiefly: if there's an issue and the drone crashes, it's just a monetary loss, and no expensive personnel die, so you don't have to worry as much about preventing crashes). OTOH, with an airliner full of passengers, cutting a pilot doesn't let you remove the risk of death in a crash, nor save much weight; an automatic airliner couldn't be much different than a normal one, while drones look VERY different from planes. –  cpast Feb 20 '14 at 2:52

5 Answers 5

up vote 75 down vote accepted

That's a good question, and brings up a joke that many pilots know well:

"What's going to be in the cockpit of the future?"

"A dog and a pilot."

"A dog? Why a dog?"

"Well, the dog is there to keep the pilot from touching anything."

"Ummm, why have the pilot then?"

"Well, someone has to feed the dog! "

Technology has improved to the point where airplanes can pretty much fly and even land themselves. They are even getting pretty good at handling "normal" emergencies like engine failures and depressurizations.

Where pilots really shine though are the type of abnormal and emergency situations that aren't "in the book".

When an engine flies apart and shreds the hydraulic lines on all three redundant hydraulic systems, a computer will be out of options because it was never programmed to handle that (because it was considered "virtually impossible" when it was designed). A pilot on the other hand can analyze and experiment until he finds enough of a solution to keep the airplane in the air as he works through other issues.

During a total electrical failure, the computers won't be much good. Sure, you can design redundant systems and make it so that it "can never happen", but what about when it does?

There are also all of the little things that a pilot is constantly making decisions on how to handle. Some examples could include:

  • Can the airplane fly with a particular feature inoperative?
  • What about multiple features inoperative?
  • How do they interact with each other?
  • What do you do when the passengers take too long to board and you are going to miss your departure slot?
  • What do you do when the ground crew forgets to close a door?
  • What about when the tug driver doesn't push you back quite far enough?
  • Or ATC wants to change you to a different runway?
  • Or you ask ATC to change you to a different runway because it might save a few minutes and that will keep you from having to deice again?
  • Or another airplane unexpectedly pulls out in front of you while taxiing?
  • A pilot can see "ugly" clouds off the end of the runway and decide that it would be better to wait a bit before taking off.
  • What happens when a flock of birds suddenly appears during the takeoff roll?
  • What happens when a passenger gets sick or unruly?
  • When do you need to divert and when can you continue?

On a typical flight, a pilot will make hundreds of small decisions that can make a big difference in the flight. Any one of these (or one of the tens or hundreds of thousands of other things that could happen) could trip up a computer.

The pilot is also there as the "final authority". If a hacker were to somehow hack into the automated systems, a pilot can always disconnect them and fly the airplane manually. He can turn off systems, he can be... Well, the pilot can be creative and a computer can only do what it was programmed to do.

Right now when a drone crashes it isn't such a big deal because nobody was on board. If an airliner with a load full of paying passengers crashes it is a big deal. Even just one.

Many of these problems can be overcome. Some of them already have been. Some of them may never be fully handled in an automatic way but maybe we could still do automated flights with an acceptable level of safety. Some automation is actually better than some pilots in certain areas.

However, the biggest reason that we don't have fully automated passenger airplanes is because the general public feels comforted by a person being up front who can take over and carry them to safety if needed. Even if the technology were 100% ready for automated passenger flights, I think that the number of people willing to purchase a ticket would be so low that it would be financially unfeasible for an airline to deploy it.

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Wow, thanks for such a thoughtful answer. –  Sponge Bob Feb 19 '14 at 3:12
Also good to mention that drones are still piloted, just remotely. You can have just a few pilots working a number of drones since they all aren't used simultaneously. On the flip side, commercial flight gives quite a bit of work to the pilots, that you're not really saving on manpower. –  Thebluefish Feb 19 '14 at 14:25
@jwenting: I disagree. When the first loss-of-life accident in a commercial airliner occurs (and there will be one, eventually), the concept is dead. Competing airlines will advertise the safety of having a pilot on board and - rightly or wrongly - the general public will shun the pilotless aircraft. "Do you want to fly with a machine in control of your life, or with Sully at the controls?" UNLESS there is a meaningful difference in the ticket price. –  Skip Miller Feb 19 '14 at 15:35
Something to keep in mind is that programming a plane to handle every single possible incident that could ever possibly come up may be more labor/time intensive than just training a human and allowing it to assess and creatively deal with new problems when they arise. Programming and program maintenance aren't exactly simple, and if it takes a team of a few thousand people to write the software...why not just train some pilots? –  Jay Carr Feb 19 '14 at 15:59
@JayCarr: Well, in that case it's kind of obvious. You only pay to write the program once (okay, and then you have to maintain it) compared to hiring 10's of thousands of pilots and paying them every single day. The software is already being written anyway. :) –  Lnafziger Feb 19 '14 at 16:09

To play devil's advocate, there were two illustrative examples in 2009:

  1. US Airways Flight 1549 was safely landed on the Hudson, a feat that the autopilot could not have handled; but
  2. Air France Flight 447's autopilot handed control back to the pilots, and their incorrect reactions contributed to the loss of everyone on board.

The idea of the pilot "up front who can take over and carry them to safety" is comforting, but not necessarily accurate. It's worth noting that Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the pilot from Flight 1549, was a former USAF pilot, arguably better trained to deal with the situation than the average commercial pilot.

Although it is accurate to say that a pilot can respond to situations an autopilot isn't programmed for, it is not accurate to say that an autopilot couldn't be programmed to deal with extreme situations. I can't lay my hands on it now, but I remember seeing a video where an autonomous pilot system corrected for the explosive removal of a model plane's wing, testing the control inputs and corresponding outputs to adapt to the loss (NASA's Adaptive Control seems similar).

I suspect we will ease into full automation of aviation, via the equivalent of today's drone pilots; imagine a group of pilots, ready to remotely take over in circumstances beyond those autopilots can handle, at some ground location, able to patch in to the airliner remotely. Freight will likely be an earlier adopter on cost grounds, with passenger following once a sufficient safety level is demonstrated.

Equally, automation outside the cockpit has further to go; some of Lnafziger's scenarios would not occur if the ATC was also autonomous, for example. As in other forms of transportation, there may be issues with autonomous and conventional vehicles operating alongside one another that would have to be ironed out.

I agree that the social aspects are far more pressing here than the technological ones, though; people's acceptance of autonomous technologies seems set to lag their performance.

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An example of fault tolerant flight control: tinyurl.com/op7s2f7 & tinyurl.com/p468bwm. Fly by Wire control systems were designed in such a way that they were able to reconfigure themselves to deal with a damaged aircraft. While the pilot was still in control, The same could of course be done for fully automated aircraft. –  DeltaLima Feb 19 '14 at 16:53
Oh, I agree and although I didn't focus on it (because the question was asking why we have pilots), I did say "Some automation is actually better than some pilots in certain areas." –  Lnafziger Feb 19 '14 at 17:07
While a computer could be programmed to handle almost anything, there are still the things that happen which were deemed "impossible" or that nobody even thought of in the first place, or the bug in the software that causes a problem. Remote pilots are a great idea until something goes wrong with the datalink. You will never convince some people that it will be bulletproof. +1 though, good points for the discussion! –  Lnafziger Feb 20 '14 at 1:20
So what you're saying is we need more USAF pilots so they can proceed to fly commercial when they're done with the Air Force. I can think of 535 people who probably agree with you. –  corsiKa Nov 3 '14 at 17:38
@MichaelKjörling Computers also can improvise. Adaptive algorithms are currently in use all around the world to handle problems like spam filtering, playing Jeopardy!, virus detection, autonomous vehicle driving, freight optimization, etc. Furthermore, "impossible" failures can happen with humans, too. Heart attack, stroke, seizure, etc. could strike simultaneously and incapacitate both pilot and copilot, and then our double redundancy would not be enough. –  Nick2253 Aug 6 at 23:05

In addition to Lnafziger's excellent post which focuses on the advantages of a human in the cockpit, I will focus on the relation between recent developments and the fact that there are still pilots in the cockpit. In commercial aviation, technological changes take a very long time before they are widely adopted. Especially if they require complex changes to the whole industry.

Suppose some manufacturer would start to develop a unpiloted transport aircraft today. Just the design of the aircraft and the systems would probably take about 10 years. In parallel certification standards need to be developed. It will probably take another 5 years to certify the aircraft. That would mean that in an optimistic scenario it would take 15 years before the first commercial flight could be made with such an aircraft. During this time conventional piloted aircraft will still be produced. And they will still be produced for a while after unpiloted aircraft becomes available. Now consider that an airframe will be flown for about 30 years, perhaps a little less if it really uneconomical to do so. That means that we will see piloted aircraft for at least another 50 years if we'd start to move to unpiloted commercial aviation today.

This also means that for a long time there will be a mix of piloted aircraft and unpiloted aircraft together. How will ATC deal with that? For ATC to deal with unpiloted aircraft, a lot of changes need to be made to ATC systems worldwide. These will take even longer than the development of the aircraft itself.

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Very true. Look how long it is taking just to allow UAV's into the US NAS! –  Lnafziger Feb 20 '14 at 1:22

Surely the main reason is moral hazard

The pilot is probably literally going to be the first to die seeing as he's sitting at the front so he's reasonably well motivated to do the job properly

I remember a friend of mine who was an army aircraft technician was obliged to go on all test flights after he'd completed a repair for the very same reason.

I think the concept of civilian drones will die (and probably some poor people on the ground along with it) following the first crash of such a vehicle.

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I don't think this is the main reason, although it is certainly a consideration. I think the last paragraph is, however, completely wrong –  SSumner Feb 20 '14 at 16:22

Even for military applications, having fully automated aircraft isn't the best of options (except when it comes to cost, pilots cost more than computers).
Quite apart from the risk of accidentally losing control over the drone (a solar flare at just the wrong moment, oops), there's the risk of the control link being jammed or even the control systems being hacked and taken over by an opponent.
While that's not that great a risk sending a Predator drone over Afghanistan of Somalia, sending the equivalent of a B-2 piloted by computers on a strike to say China does invoke that risk.
And I'm not talking about Terminator style robots taking over the world and hunting humans to extinction (which is a big reason why the public has trouble with armed drones) but human interference causing the drone to either crash, divert to an enemy base and be captured, or be reprogrammed to strike back at its owner by the enemy.

And in part that plays in commercial aircraft as well. A well equipped criminal gang could break into the control systems and take them over, sending an airliner with several hundred passengers out of control (or into a holding pattern, demanding ransom). No more trying to sneak people with funny accents onto airliners with plastic explosives in their shoes or underwear, which (romantic though it may be to some, and providing martyrdom to the 'volunteer') isn't very likely to succeed.
And that was already a real worry when Boeing and Airbus introduced their Electronic Flight Bag equipment, the idea that someone could break in in an airliner's systems and reprogram those to provide false data to the pilots who'd then use that to fly to the wrong place caused serious headaches (and those things can be reprogrammed only on the ground using a cable from a laptop...).

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This has nothing to do with having a pilot or not. If you have access to the flight systems, you can already crash a fly-by-wire plane. The security threat is well known and dealt with already (at least Airbus has a dedicated team working on ensuring the right code is running on its planes, I bet all manufacturers do the same). At least with automated aircrafts, the pilots can't crash their own planes. –  TonioElGringo May 22 at 12:56

protected by Bret Copeland Apr 21 '14 at 18:29

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