When Will Software Have the Right Stuff?

Released: 23-Nov-2011 1:30 PM EST
Source Newsroom: IEEE Spectrum Magazine
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Newswise — The military now trains more people to control unmanned aerial vehicles than pilots, yet UAVs haven't yet taken over even the humblest niches in commercial aviation. The reason is partly technical--UAVs can't yet sense and avoid other aircraft, or work easily with air controllers--but mainly psychological. White-knuckled passengers just aren't prepared to step inside an aircraft with an empty cockpit.

The technical problems are yielding to two separate lines of inquiry. First, researchers are finding ways to make UAVs handle ever more demanding tasks over the battlefield, such as taking off and landing on aircraft carriers, carrying cargo to isolated troops, and even evacuating wounded soldiers. Proponents of commercial UAVs argue that eventually such emergency aid will begin to save lives in the civilian sector--say, by finding shipwrecked people and pulling them from the water--at which point the public will finally embrace pilotlessness.

Second, cockpit automation continues to advance, reducing the task load on pilots. By becoming more credible as a backup for pilots, automation should one day put an end to the job of co-pilot, as it did long ago to the jobs of flight engineer, communications officer, and navigator. Indeed, some critics say that pilots already depend so heavily on software that their basic skills are atrophying, and thus their one remaining role--to take charge if the software should fail--is coming under a cloud.

The likely route to commercially successful pilotless flight will begin with freight carriage over water, then over farmland, followed by emergency evacuations of people and then limited passenger flights in sparsely populated, poorly served areas. When a generation of consumers has grown up with such services, the final step to routine unmanned airliner flight will not seem too drastic to contemplate.


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