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Planes Without Pilots

Some aviation experts wonder how many human pilots are really necessary.

Some researchers say that while modern airplanes are highly automated, there is room to automate them even further.

Credit: Harry Campbell

Modern airplanes are highly automated; a recent survey of commercial airline pilots found most spend significantly less than 10 minutes of any given flight in direct control of their planes. However, some researchers say there is room to automate planes even further, especially in the wake of the Germanwings plane believed to have been deliberately crashed by its co-pilot.

The relatively old F-16 fighter plane already has a ground-avoidance feature that could have prevented such a crash, automatically taking control of the plane if it approaches the ground too fast or at the wrong angle.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is conducting a competition to design a robot co-pilot that could speak and listen to the pilot and even manipulate the flight controls. DARPA plans for the robot to employ a wide variety of advanced technology, ranging from voice recognition and speech synthesis to computer vision.

In addition, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) wants to automate the U.S. air traffic control system. NASA estimates more automation could increase the density of air traffic by 20 percent while requiring fewer human controls than today. However, some researchers are leery of taking humans completely out of the cockpit, especially on commercial flights carrying people.

From The New York Times
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