It is a familiar part of flying. As you taxi towards the runway, a crackly voice is heard over the intercom. The pilot’s brief summary of the route, flight time, and weather conditions are designed to inform but also to reassure. The familiar refrain tells passengers the plane is in safe, human hands and they can relax and enjoy the flight.
But the phrase “this is your captain speaking” may soon become a thing of the past, thanks to a new generation of robotic, passenger aircraft that will take to the skies by themselves.
“We believe that unmanned aircraft are the next big transformation in the aviation industry,” says Doug Davis, director of the unmanned aircraft programme at New Mexico State University.
Of course, the military already know this. Automatic landing systems have been used for years to help pilots drop F-18 aircraft on to the narrow landing strips on top of aircraft carriers. Then there is the rise of drone warfare. These planes are still flown remotely by pilots on the ground, but most have the capability to follow a predefined flight path and even land themselves if they get into serious trouble or the link between the ground is broken. The next generation, such as the US Navy’s X-47B, will be even more advanced, with onboard intelligence that will allow it to adapt its course and fly with only minimal input from a pilot.