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Boeing Studies Planes Without Pilots, Plans Experiments Next Year ( 128

"Boeing has begun researching the possibility of commercial-passenger jets that will fly without pilots, using artificial intelligence guiding automated controls to make decisions in flight," reports Seattle Times. The company is planning experimental flights, without passengers, for next year. From the report: "The basic building blocks of the technology are clearly available," said Mike Sinnett, former chief systems engineer on the 787 Dreamliner and now vice president at Boeing responsible for innovative future technologies, at a briefing before the Paris Air Show. "There's going to be a transition from the requirement to have a skilled aviator operate the airplane to having a system that operates the vehicle autonomously, if we can do that with the same level of safety," Sinnett said. Sinnett said Boeing's research is driven by the pilot shortage worldwide that is only going to become more acute. In the next two decades, Boeing forecasts a demand for about 40,000 new commercial jets, roughly doubling the world fleet.
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Boeing Studies Planes Without Pilots, Plans Experiments Next Year

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    • In the minds of many fly-by-wire was also removing the pilots, having the computer fly the aircraft. However after decades of use in military aviation the general public accepted it for passenger aviation. The complete removal of pilots will likely follow a similar adoption, it will need to have a highly successful decades long history of use in military aviation first.

      Plus, even with removal of human pilots from the aircraft there may be the capability to remotely pilot the aircraft.
      • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 08, 2017 @10:39PM (#54582053)

        I will never fly on a plane if the pilot isn't also on-board with me. He may not be able to as good a job as the computer and may cost more than a ground-based drone pilot, but in an emergency I know he'll do his damndest to try to save both our lives.

      • by torkus ( 1133985 )

        The military has been using remote piloted and autonomous drones for a while now.

        Also consider that most large, modern plans include

        I don't know of any auto-takeoff but as I understand it that's a simple process (full thrust, maintain heading, when speed > preset, rotate and ascend) with the typical emergency-abort criteria.

        Mainly what pilots seem to do is make announcements, talk to towers, and request a flight path change if there's turbulence. None of this is especially comp

        • by drnb ( 2434720 )

          The military has been using remote piloted and autonomous drones for a while now.

          I was referring to top tier fighters and bombers. Current drones and RPV seem to mostly be of a lesser tier of aircraft.

          I don't know of any auto-takeoff ...

          F/A-18 carrier launches.

          i'm still stupefied as to why the MTA (NYC Subway etc) and other cities trains still run things completely manually.

          Government employee unions with a sympathetic city government.

  • by zlives ( 2009072 )

    maybe automated-trains should be a proven tech first.

    • Behold! The future! []

    • maybe automated-trains should be a proven tech first.

      Vancouver has been living in the future since 1986. The Skytrain system is the longest automated train system in the world. []

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by lucm ( 889690 )

      Airbus planes are basically flying without pilots. There's people in the cockpit but they can't override the computer in case of emergency (since French engineers know everything) and can only do minimal things within specific guidelines enforced by the computer; they're just slightly more in charge of the planes than flight attendants.

      • This. Very much this. Airbus aircraft generally scare the shit out of me.
      • Re: meh (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 09, 2017 @12:03AM (#54582401)

        I am Airbus A320 pilot and also a software programmer, albeit not a good one. In any case, you are wrong. Airbus does let you override the computer. In fact, the computer is quite dumb. It only has protections such as bank angle limits. It's still easy to mess up. Even the ECAM (electronic diagnostics and problem resolutions), is still dumb. For example, it can lead you to disconnect two IDGs if blindly followed. Would you want to be over the ocean without electricity?

        I love the A320/321 but don't place too much faith on how smart these systems are. They only automate the most benign of tasks.

        The Airbus A320 is safer than a 737 but it still requires quite a bit, if not more, knowledge.

        • The Airbus A320 is safer than a 737

          Isn't this only true if you include the older 737 models from last century, from before the A320 was available? I think they are both remarkably safe planes, probably without enough statistical data to differentiate their safety records.

        • by torkus ( 1133985 )

          Clearly that system is poorly designed and implemented. Funny how everything in aviation needs to be tested to the 3rd degree yet some obviously broken things still pass muster.

          I don't think (or hope!) that anyone here is suggesting taking a brain dead 'automation/decision tree computer' and letting it fly a plane without a pilot.

          But a properly designed system? That's different. Heck, you could probably use some of the machine learning from IBM Watson and let it watch a few million hours of pilots flying

  • Cargo (Score:5, Funny)

    by JBMcB ( 73720 ) on Thursday June 08, 2017 @07:43PM (#54581149)

    I would think this would be a near no-brainer for cargo flights. Probably less so for passenger flights.

    I would consider flying a robo-flight if they installed an authentic HAL 9000 eye on the cockpit door, if for no other reason just to see it.

    • no, it would be one of those rectangular watson lava lamps, I wonder what they're called.
    • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

      So they claim to have invented a secure wireless computer network system that could never ever be mass hacked, remember, greedy, cheap, lowest tender and hack one, hack them all. So automated planes the perfect false flag system for endless wars, they choose who they get to blame the attack on based on current corporate profit goals ie resources that need stealing, munitions that need expending and replacing, any hint of nationalising of essential services (the perfect corporate blackmail tool).

    • Cockpit will be gone. Seats with front views will be very expensive though. Even though the 'windshield' will be tiny windows.

      • What windscreens or windows? Everyone will get a display that can be configured to show forward, side, rear, etc cameras. Windscreens/windows add complexity and cost.
        • People get too claustrophobic. Not all of them. If what you say was psychologically possible, they would have done it years ago.

    • You realize the HAL 9000 murdered all its crew and passengers? ;-)
  • by aberglas ( 991072 ) on Thursday June 08, 2017 @07:47PM (#54581179)

    If you have a pilot at all, they need to actually fly the plane, or they will deskill. No half-smart AutoThrotle that can cause crashes like the Air Asia one.

    And then we need a smart AI system to monitor the pilot and warn them if they are doing something stupid. Like trying to land the plane miles short of the runway.

    If the pilot does not respond the autopilot can disconnect the controls.

    It used to be said that you need a pilot and a dog. The pilot to feed the dog, and the dog to bite the pilot if they touch the controls. But the Autopilot can the job of the dog as well. Maybe electric wires in the seat.

    [AutoThrotle -- when flying a small plane, one constantly monitors air speed on descent. But large planes have autothrotles that are like cruise control and do this for the pilot. But if they autothrotle is set to the wrong mode, then nothing is monitoring the air speeed. which has led to several crashes.]

    • by dknj ( 441802 )

      which has led to several crashes

      citation needed

      • citation found! []

        • by Jeremi ( 14640 )

          citation found!

          You call that a citation? This [] is a citation.

        • by torkus ( 1133985 )

          In this and the other citation provided, the crash happened because the pilots fought the autopilot (and made plenty of other mistakes). Had they NOT tried to compensate for a situation they didn't fully understand, they might have had a rough time until the auto-systems got them on a level flightpath but they'd be alive.

          The difficulty here isn't skill loss due to automated systems, it's pilots and autopilots not being able to interpret what the other is doing. If the pilots in this example had simply le

      • by afxgrin ( 208686 ) []

        If they just let go they probably would've been fine.

    • "deskill"? Is that like roadkill, but with your desk?

      (Yes, I know, It's de-skill. As in lose skills. But I read it "desk-kill" and thought it was funny. Like the pilot will suddenly go postal sitting behind a desk or something.)

  • []

    Now imagine there were no humans who could pilot the thing on board. When that eventually happens, and it will happen, people will become far too afraid to fly in AI only flights.

    • I can counter that with a suicidal pilot [] - something that machines don't yet aspire to. I'm betting that if we sat here all night posting examples of human vs. machine errors in aviation, you'd run out of material first unless we go waaaay back.

    • When that eventually happens, and it will happen, people will become far too afraid to fly in AI only flights.

      Pilot error [] is one of the most common reasons for crashes. AI auto-pilots don't need to be perfect, they just need to be better than humans.

      So start them out in cargo planes, continue to improve the tech, and once they pass humans in reliability, no more human pilots.

      • Pilot error is one of the most common reasons for crashes.

        Pilot error is one of the most common results from NTSB investigations, but that doesn't mean pilot error was actually the cause. PE is what the NTSB hangs things on unless they can find good evidence of something else -- because the manufacturers of any hardware or software blamed for a crash have lawyers who make good money defending them, while the dead pilot cannot pay anyone to defend him.

      • by 0123456 ( 636235 )

        "Pilot error" is what they call it when the situation is so bad that the autopilot doesn't know what to do, hands control back to the pilot, and the pilot crashes.

  • Hudson River (Score:5, Insightful)

    by xbytor ( 215790 ) on Thursday June 08, 2017 @07:53PM (#54581213) Homepage

    Let me know when these AIs can land a plane on the Hudson River after a massive bird strike.

    • Re:Hudson River (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Ichijo ( 607641 ) on Thursday June 08, 2017 @08:15PM (#54581345) Journal
      Or a missing wing []!
    • Let me know when these AIs can land a plane on the Hudson River after a massive bird strike.

      Most human pilots couldn't have done it. An AI pilot, if it was trained with water landings as a criteria, could.

      Whenever people try to point out the weakness of AI, they always pick weird corner cases. But the thing is, these are often where an AI excels. An AI can be trained on thousands, or even millions of simulated water landing scenarios, and replay them over and over until it handles them properly. A human pilot will likely have zero experience.

      Once the AI pilot is trained, then the "water landin

      • If AI is so easily trainable on any kind of edge case, why do they have such simple problems such as missing red lights or going down one way streets the wrong way? It would seem reasonable that they have that down before we should believe every edge case is covered.
        • by dgatwood ( 11270 )

          The three most likely reasons are:

          • Overreliance on map data (that turned out to be wrong) instead of visual signals.
          • Cutting corners in training to get to market sooner.
          • A human overriding the computer.
    • While I'm not ready to go all in on AI controlled planes yet (or let's call them something else like Expert Systems, they aren't real AIs) I think starting to test is very valid. We are able to design systems with very good decision making capabilities these days. It is conceivable that we will soon be able to make them on par with humans, even for extreme cases like 1549.

      It is certainly an area worth putting R&D in to.

  • Surely we don't need pilots.

    And don't call me Shirley.

  • It's always easy to automate most of a problem, but edge cases tend to be really hard to solve. Yes, the autopilot can fly the plane 99.9% of the time, but the pilots are there for the 0.1% when it can't.

    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      It's always easy to automate most of a problem, but edge cases tend to be really hard to solve. Yes, the autopilot can fly the plane 99.9% of the time, but the pilots are there for the 0.1% when it can't.

      Well, from what I understand they hand over full control to the pilots given sufficient failure because they're there and supposed to be experts, but in many cases it could have continued and in many cases pulled through. Or the damage is so extensive the pilots can't control the plane or don't understand the situation themselves. Or the pilots don't know what to do in these error conditions and don't know how to fly either. For example Air France 447 [].

      According to the final report, the accident resulted fro

  • Clearly this is an opportunity to install front row seats with panoramic view...
    • Windshields are heavy and can break. They will install litle windows oblique to the front and still charge a huge premium.

      • More likely there will be no windows. Just not worth the expense.

        • If people, as a group, could be packed together like sardines without any windows the airlines would have done it 50 years ago.

          Perhaps if they sedate the claustrophobic passengers.

      • We sat on the tarmac for 8 hours waiting for the windshield to be replaced and cure, it kind of sucked, but not as bad as have a windshield shatter at 550 MPH and 35,000 feet.

  • See [] "I ... can feel myself ... going ... Dave"

    The pilot of an aircraft has many legal, emergency, and crew leadership duties which go beyond the actual piloting of the aircraft.

    Being a pilot has been described as long periods of boredom punctuated by seconds of sheer terror.

    The pilot shortage is a red herring, like any other occupation, if you pay people commensurate to their educational investment, skills, knowledge, experience, and continue their training. The airlines

  • I wonder how AIs react to hijacker demands?

    • They don't. But then again, I suppose that's the entire point, now isn't it?

    • by Nkwe ( 604125 )

      I wonder how AIs react to hijacker demands?

      That AI software has already been written. In a previous life it was called "Clippy". "It looks like you are trying to hijack this plane. Would you like to..."

  • It won't fly.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    The thing is... a computer can "work a checklist" way faster than two cooperating pilots can. Good.

    So we get rid of the "we need time to work the checklists". The plane just radios to the airport: "I have an engine problem, MAYDAY I want to land back on runway 05, in 13 minutes, 23 seconds."

    But in un-prepared emergencies, some pilots have taken the right decisions for a safe landing. For example that plane in hawaii that blew its top. It landed way overspeed because of control problems when slowing down.


    • So in the "normal" cases you get a bit better, but in the exceptional cases, things get a bit worse.

      That remark reminded me vividly of Frank Herbert's comment (in "The Dragon in the Sea"/"Under Pressure") that "there is no such thing as a small accident on a submarine". I suspect that "a bit worse" is a huge understatement (except in the sense that each of us can only die once).

  • On a plane without pilot I would pay extra to have a front seat and enjoy the view during the whole flight.
  • Progress! (Score:5, Informative)

    by Archtech ( 159117 ) on Friday June 09, 2017 @05:06AM (#54583475)

    Oh good. In the past there have been incidents when the computers apparently took over an aircraft and locked out the pilots. []

    Now there won't be any pilots to be locked out, so the aircraft can just destroy itself in its own preferred way.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    World wide airlines have no problem employing pilots. However, in the US companies pay them like busdrivers with worse working hours. As companies mainly compete over price, there are only a few options to stay afloat. The easiest is to reduce salaries. This work especially well when there is no market wide union negotiating salaries where every airline is bound to pay.

  • The main role of a pilot is to handle failure of some parts of the aircraft. There is a huge number of stories where the pilots have been incredibly creative and have found ways to save desperate situations. IMHO, if the pilot does not risk his life, he may be less inspired.
  • For years now, they have been saying that the cockpit of the future will consist of a pilot and a dog. The pilot is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to bite the pilot if he tries to touch the controls.
  • I'm glad there's no passengers on the plane, but that still risks everyone on the ground under the flight path.

  • Yea, I can see this ending well.. Oh, by the way, do home owners have accidental jet crash insurance yet? If so, how much more, and more, will they pay for it?
  • save $10! $50 gets you 1 carryon bag and 1 pilot for your flight ($60 if purchased separately)
  • 9/11 on this subject?
    When it is finally relevant?

    Now, I am not an alarmist or back the "war on terror" ie "license to do what ever". But this is actually a solution that does not kill people.

    Regarding implementation.
    First of, this system would first replace the two pilots rule.
    After millions of hours of training and testing it would move to cargo flights.
    THEN to passenger flights.

    It must be self contained.

When you make your mark in the world, watch out for guys with erasers. -- The Wall Street Journal