How real are autonomous airplanes?

By | 3 minute read | January 16, 2017

leadspace image for autonomous airplanes

Recently BBC News published an intriguing story about a project from BAE Systems to develop an airplane that flies by itself. Autonomous cars are one of the hottest topics in technology and the Internet of Things, so it’s no surprise that companies are applying these innovations to airplanes  But drawing parallels between cars and airplanes is difficult, because the industries are so different. Here are a few ideas on how we will see the adoption of autonomous airplanes differ.

Regulation will slow adoption

The aviation industry is arguably the most regulated industry in the world.  There are federal bodies such as America’s Federal Aviation Administration, industry trade associations such as the International Air Transport Association, and international standards to ensure consistent safety and operations for flights globally.

This means that nearly every aspect of flight operations is regulated in some way. This includes aircraft maintenance, flight plans, pilot training, and much more. On a practical level, these regulations do not accommodate the concept of a cognitive pilot such as Watson controlling a plane. In order to make this possible, we’d likely need to see changes in aviation regulations before this technology can be used at scale, which will take time and a willingness by multiple stakeholders across the industry – airline manufacturers, airline operators, technology firms, governments, and perhaps most importantly, consumers.

The auto industry is subject to far fewer regulations.  This brings us to our second predictions.

Early adopters will not focus on the consumer

Consumers are often very wary of technology where safety is a concern. We’ve seen deep skepticism around the safety of autonomous vehicles, even though they’ve been put through rigorous testing and thus far have proven to be safer than traditional driving.

And while we all know that traveling via airplane is far safer than by auto, people still tend to fear flying much more than driving. I think consumer fear around self-driving airplanes could be a substantial barrier to adoption, and one reason why early adopter are likely to focus on commercial or defense use cases.

It’s no surprise that BAE Systems is one company experimenting with self-flying planes – it’s a British multinational defense and aerospace company that isn’t subject to the same level of regulation and scrutiny as the aviation firms’ consumers are most familiar with.

We also expect that the early adopter use cases will focus on deploying technology on an assistive basis, meaning that the technologies will be used to support pilots rather than replace pilots. For example, cognitive cockpit technologies may initially primarily serve to prevent pilot error, and then evolve to become more autonomous over time.

Technology will differ from autonomous cars

Airplanes are a lot more complex than cars. A plane can easily have over 1 million parts, coming from thousands of vendors.  Manufacturing planes is hard – that’s partially why there isn’t much competition in this industry.

The sheer complexity of creating an autonomous plane may slow adoption relative to cars. Some of the same technology, such as video analytics, will apply to both cars and planes. But planes have additional complexities to account for. For example, advanced analytics around weather will play a much bigger role in aviation.

I’d imagine that the complexity itself will slow the evolution of autonomous airplanes at scale. Instead, it’s likely we will see this technology applies to small scale aviation first – such as drones – before it matures to large aircraft made by companies such as Boeing and Airbus.

While the barriers to adoption are higher for autonomous planes are higher than those for cars, the potential benefits are massive. Technological innovation in aviation could substantially lower costs, improve global mobility, ignite global trade, and have many other positive effects.

To learn more about how IBM Watson might transform the aviation industry, including an deeper explanation of what is a cognitive cockpit, check out the ‘Can IBM’s Watson fit in the cockpit of the future‘ article in Avionics Magazine.