Today, If you ask “Who is flying this plane?” the answer will be “Captain Smith and First Officer Jones.” And that will be true whether the airplane in question is carrying passengers or freight or both.
Tomorrow? Probably the same.
But the day after?
Think about your last visit to a big airport. To get from the main concourse to your chosen airline’s terminal you probably boarded some kind of small train. The trip took only a couple of minutes, and you arrived without incident, as do a million people all over the world every day. Did your little train have a driver? A human driver? If it didn’t, were you surprised?
Today, you would be surprised to hear that the airplane you were flying on was crewed by Captain Robbie Robot and First Officer A. I. Interface. Probably terrified, too. But how long will it be before that is the norm?
Warehouses now operate without humans. Self-driving cars and self-driving trucks are well past the “is it possible” stage. Unmanned military aircraft are old news. Small drones are already making commercial deliveries in China, and now large drones are being developed for warehouse-to-warehouse and regional transport of cargo. JD.com recently unveiled the design characteristics of a heavy-load, fixed-wing drone it is developing. These gas-powered fixed-wing drones will be deployed on routes between cities and provinces, said Dapeng Li, Principal Scientist at JD-X, the in-house research lab which oversees drone development for JD. The e-commerce giant has been working with Northwestern Polytechnical University and local authorities in Shaanxi Province to develop, and eventually manufacture and test industrial drones with max payloads that surpass one tonne.
Given all that, how long will it be before self-flying freighters are carrying the goodies you ordered on Amazon or T-Mall? What about the aircraft? Will purpose-built large cargo drones dominate the market in the future, or will the freighter conversion industry one day be installing upgraded autopilots or RPV hardware along with cargo doors?
How do you feel about this? Would you board an airplane knowing the cockpit was staffed only by a computer?