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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    $\begingroup$ I fully expect aerial photography and powerline patrol to go 100% drone within our lifetime. $\endgroup$
    – Steve V.
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 3:33
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    $\begingroup$ Simple answer: because we trust humans than machines. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 8:21
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    $\begingroup$ 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 $\endgroup$
    – asawyer
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ 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: $\endgroup$
    – p1l0t
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 0:22
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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$
    – cpast
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 2:52

6 Answers 6


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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    $\begingroup$ Wow, thanks for such a thoughtful answer. $\endgroup$
    – Keegan
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 3:12
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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$
    – BlueBuddy
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ @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. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 15:35
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    $\begingroup$ 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? $\endgroup$
    – Jae Carr
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ @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. :) $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 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.

  • $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ 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! $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 1:20
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    $\begingroup$ @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. $\endgroup$
    – Nick2253
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 23:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Nick2253 "... could strike simultaneously and incapacitate both pilot and copilot" Sure, but how often does that happen, compared to, say, software problems of various kinds? Now multiply that software's complexity by some large factor; what are the odds that it will operate error-free in potentially extreme situations? You can always come up with scenarios where any given preventative measure will not be enough to prevent a given failure, but at some point we have to decide what is "good enough". I work as a system developer, and I definitely don't believe what I do is free of errors. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 7:27
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    $\begingroup$ In all fairness, AF447 was the result of bad cockpit design (independent side sticks) and poorly trained pilots. If you watch the PBS special on this flight, which came out before the wreck was found but the conclusions turned out to be remarkably accurate, a competent pilot can handle loss of airspeed indication at cruising altitude. $\endgroup$
    – tj1000
    Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 22:38

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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    $\begingroup$ Very true. Look how long it is taking just to allow UAV's into the US NAS! $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 1:22
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    $\begingroup$ The control loop for an aircraft in IFR is fairly baroque: - the control system receives the position of the aircraft (traditionally by radar, nowadays by transponder) - an air traffic controller observes the position and decides on a velocity change to maintain safe and efficient airspace usage (possibly with computer assistance?) - the ATC gives the pilot a voice command - the pilot confirms and adjusts the autopilot Why not just have the ATC computer message the plane's computer? $\endgroup$
    – Rich
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 2:23

Current manufacturer initiatives

As to the current state of fully autonomous passenger jets technology (in 2017), there is some interest by manufacturers in the technology, particularly by Boeing, but it would be a stretch to say that manufacturers are working hard to get fully autonomous passenger jets commercially ready soon.

At the Paris Airshow in 2017, Mark Sinnett, vice president at Boeing responsible for innovative future technologies, clarified that, as paraphrased by the Wasington Post, "The artificial intelligence that Boeing will test will be capable of making decisions normally made by pilots. Sinnett said that the technology could be used to reduce the number of pilots required for long-haul flights or, in some situations, allow fully autonomous flying"

Earlier in 2017 Sinnett had stated that “We are not smart enough to preprogram all those things. The machine has to be capable of making the same set of decisions [as a pilot],” Sinnett said. “If it can’t, we cannot go there.”

In a talk at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech Conference in January 2015, John Tracy, Boeing’s chief technology officer, said: “Some of our freighter customers are asking us for those [autonomous airplane] systems today.”

He went on: “We are quite confident that technologically, the toolkit is filled. With respect to a commercial airplane, there is no doubt in our minds that we can solve the problem of autonomous flight. It’s a question of certification procedures, regulatory requirements and, even more significantly, public perception. "

A spokesperson for Airbus said in 2016: “Airbus is not developing an autonomous airplane.”

And a spokesperson for the FAA, which would be responsible for certifying an autonomous plane, said in 2016 that: “The FAA has no current unmanned aircraft certification projects in the transport category, nor has anyone engaged the agency on such a project.”

Chinese company Ehang has produced a passenger drone, the Ehang 184, that can fly a 25 minute preprogrammed route from take-off to landing. This doesn't preclude many of the issues described below. The technology is still in test flights in 2017.

Public Perception

While previous advances in autopilot and even crashes due to misuse of autopilot have not caused widespread distrust, John Tracy of Boeing stated that public perception is very important to successful implementation. My opinion is that when things start to go wrong in the cockpit, many people would trust a human with thousands of hours of experience over a computer with millions of hours of testing. The lack of faith in self-driving car technology seems to confirm this tendency.

What decisions currently require a pilot?

  • Preflighting the airplane: The pilot needs to review the entire plane before flying. This includes reviewing the list of items that need non-urgent repairs and deciding if he's comfortable with the safety margin on the plane. Sometimes this relies on predicting whether the plane will encounter certain weather conditions.

  • Weather: A pilot has to make the decisions on whether or not a route is safe to fly or if conditions will get worse. In-flight, this may require a decision to declare an emergency. A pilot with detailed radar-based weather maps may even be able to choose a route right through a gap between dangerous storm cells. A computer would have to be better than a pilot at predicting how safe a particular route is, in order to avoid situations like Southwest Airlines Flight 1248 or many other crashes where weather was a factor.

  • Flying visual approaches: Even though autoland technology has existed since 1964, it's still uncommon to have an airport equipped with all runways enabled for zero-visibility approaches. (see this question). Less than 1% of all landings are currently done using autoland.

  • Taxiing: Taxiing is currently done manually, and by visual reference. Detailed GPS maps and indications of where you are on the taxiways exist but the plane can't drive through them automatically. Automatic taxiing by use of external towing vehicles is an area of active research (see here or here)

  • Communication with ATC: Airspace clearances, weather information, taxiway directions, traffic diversion, declaring an emergency and more are all handled verbally with ATC. Partial replacements for much of this has been made with ACARS, TCAS, and advanced radios, but there remains a lot of work to be done in taking ATC verbal communication completely out of some planes.

  • Avoiding VFR traffic and terrain: Not all traffic is transponder-equipped and not all terrain is recorded in an accurate database or covered by an enhanced ground-proximity awareness device, so we rely on pilots to avoid these. Inaccurate charts are rare in modern times so the risk here is probably acceptable, but imperfections in maps have contributed partially to crashes like Lockheed L-1329 JetStar N400M or World Airways Flight 802

  • Identifying when things are going wrong: Although some malfunctions, like total engine failure, are easy to identify, other issues are trickier to sort out and require visual confirmation or pilot judgement. For example, if two flight instruments disagree, which one is malfunctioning?

  • Making a plan of action for equipment malfunctions: Can a plane still fly to an airport with an equipment problem or do you need to declare an emergency? Is an unusual flying technique or reduced flight envelope required after the failure? Not to be an alarmist, but exploding engines, landing gear failures, equipment fires, and tire explosions can happen several times in the industry in a single year, not to mention much more common issues like indicator lights not working, bird strikes, compressor stalls, engine malfunctions, and autopilot disengagement.

  • Route planning: Pilots still often manually read approach charts and sectional charts and enter the resulting route into the FMS.

  • Running some of the manual troubleshooting: Current hardware doesn't allow the flight control computers to pull breakers, disengage generators, or restart engines. Currently the philospophy that I've seen in autopilots is "if something unusual is going on, disengage and pilots will take care of it".

  • Turbulence and windshear: Autopilots can currently handle these tough wind conditions, but pilots hand-flying the aircraft are usually better and provide a larger margin of safety.

  • On-board medical problems and other passenger problems: Someone needs to make a judgement call as to whether an onboard medical problem or someone getting violent over yoga would require a diversion, and currently this decision is up to the pilot and other flight crew.

Can't we handle some of this remotely?

You may ask why we can't simply remotely handle some decisions from mundane weather rerouting to emergency procedures, but that only eliminate some of the hurdles. Currently the technology for remote piloting is not mature enough (see these questions about engineers on board, converting planes to drones, and uploading FDR data). I've seen some of the latest generation connectivity technology for aircraft and even in 2017 it still has reliability, latency, cost, or speed issues that make it unsuitable for handling a matter of life or death, particularly in area like oceans where satellites are your only option.

The topic of advances towards fully autonomous aircraft is a broad and complex topic. Here are some articles for further reading:

  • $\begingroup$ Excellent answer!! I'm sorry that I didn't see it sooner. $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Commented Jan 30, 2020 at 22:39

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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    $\begingroup$ I don't think this is the main reason, although it is certainly a consideration. I think the last paragraph is, however, completely wrong $\endgroup$
    – SSumner
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ Even if the automated pilot crashes and kills all aboard, it will have saved two lives. :-/ $\endgroup$
    – JS.
    Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 17:11

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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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ Commented May 22, 2015 at 12:56

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