Facing potential shortages of airline pilots and dramatic advances in automation, industry and government researchers have begun the most serious look yet at the idea of enabling jetliners to be flown by a single pilot.
All large commercial jets for passenger and cargo service world-wide now fly with at least two pilots in the cockpit. A new study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Rockwell Collins Inc. will focus on the provocative idea that co-pilots could remain on the ground, remotely assisting solo aviators on the flight deck during the busiest parts of flights, said John Borghese, Rockwell’s vice president of its Advanced Technology Center.
Whether the concept will eventually come to fruition depends on political viability and social acceptability as well as technical feasibility. The researchers aren’t endorsing the idea or devising specific plans for single-pilot operation of large commercial jets. Rather, they seek to analyze changes in technology and operations that could make the concept feasible in the future-even if that means as far off as 2030.
From self-operating elevators introduced well over a half-century ago to advanced plans for driverless cars today, human mobility has become increasingly automated. The NASA study reflects not only technological ambition but more practical concerns: Many airline industry officials are worried that the world-wide pool of pilots will dwindle over the next two decades while air-travel volume doubles.
Reducing the size of cockpit crews for big cargo or passenger planes-or eventually perhaps even eliminating pilots entirely-have been topics of theoretical discussion among aerospace industry officials and researchers for many years. The NASA initiative is significant because it raises the concept’s profile, and signals that NASA officials are convinced the general notion isn’t too far-fetched to merit further research.
The roughly $4 million, four-year contract was awarded to Rockwell earlier this year but the first phase will be announced on Tuesday. The nearly half-decade study will include running simulations, determining where technology is needed and even potentially undertaking live flight trials. NASA officials say they anticipate Rockwell’s efforts will spark additional studies by an array of other companies and experts.
Under the concept the researchers are studying, aviators on the ground could be assigned to assist solo cockpit pilots on multiple flights, virtually co-piloting during the busiest times through crowded airspace, approach-and-landing maneuvers, or if something goes wrong. “It’s a reasonably new area” to study how the notion may apply to large jets, according to Parimal Kopardekar, the program’s manager based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in northern California. When pilots need a midair rest or bathroom break, those on the ground even may “need to baby-sit the vehicle,” he said.
Such a dramatic shift won’t happen any time soon, and there is virtual consensus that reduced crews for passenger planes won’t be considered until they are introduced first in the cargo arena. That is unlikely to gain traction much before the end of the next decade, according to experts and airline officials.
Jets today are designed to have two pilots behind the controls, and retrofitting existing aircraft “may be too expensive and may be too difficult” to obtain regulatory approval, according to NASA’s Mr. Kopardekar. Industry officials say all-new aircraft would be needed with cockpits designed from the start with a single pilot in mind.
The international aviation system has reached unmatched levels of safety and reliability, in part because of greater automation and a widely accepted global standard for cockpit behavior and cooperation.
Early investigations of single-pilot flying alone in a simulator with a co-pilot assisting from a virtual ground station found that separation led to frequent confusion about what the other aviator was doing.
Boeing Co. and Airbus Group NV designed jets in the 1970s with increasing automation that eliminated a third crew member, who used to be responsible for monitoring navigation and the various aircraft systems.
Steady advances in cockpit automation and enhanced capabilities of unmanned aircraft have transformed the technologies required for reduced-pilot airline operations. “Fundamentally, it’s not an engineering question anymore,” according to Richard Healing, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board. “The real debate is over how regulators and public opinion will react to previously unthinkable changes.”
About a decade ago, FedEx Corp. informally broached the idea of reducing its cargo-jet flight crews from three to two on long overwater routes of more than eight hours. Flights of that duration require a relief pilot. To reduce risks to people on the ground, proponents argued such flights could take off from coastal airports with runways ending over water and land on the same type of strips.
The company abandoned the idea, government officials said at the time, largely due to union opposition, compounded by extensive institutional and regulatory hurdles. Labor leaders naturally bristled when the issue came up, though many continue to believe the pendulum is inexorably swinging in the direction of reduced crews and ultimately, cargo planes entirely controlled from the ground. The Air Line Pilots Association declined to comment and FedEx didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The early industry discussion was aimed at cutting costs, but Rockwell’s latest study is partly inspired by an anticipated shortage of pilots. Boeing projects a need for 533,000 new commercial airline pilots over the next 20 years as the number of miles flown doubles, and the plane maker has warned that personnel availability might fall short.
Analysts, labor groups and academics contend any pilot shortage results from the industry’s unwillingness to sufficiently pay pilots. Boeing declined to comment on the NASA study with Rockwell.
While experts almost universally believe some moves in this direction are inevitable, they disagree over how long they may take and the extent of the stumbling blocks.
“This is not an incremental change,” said David Woods, a professor of cognitive systems and resilience engineering at Ohio State University. Reducing crews goes beyond bolting on technology and further automating flight decks, he stressed. “This is a major step change. It has big implications for how we train pilots.”
Prof. Woods said as flying becomes more automated, transitioning from routine flying to dealing with potential emergencies in the air and on the ground becomes increasingly difficult.
Experts say these challenges may be surmountable, but not without significantly rethinking current design principles. The worst-case-scenario of pilot incapacitation during stormy weather or mechanical failure, for instance, offers a daunting challenge.
“You need to have a very assured way of getting that aircraft down to the ground with no help from the pilot on board,” said Mr. Borghese. “Right now I cannot imagine a harder problem.”