Would You Fly on an AI-Backed Plane Without a Pilot?

Autopilots already fly commercial jetliners by themselves, but pilots still have to make decisions about how to program them. Boeing wants to change that.
This story originally appeared on PCMag

You probably learned in grade school that all you really need to fly is more drag than lift. But by now you know that to start an airline, what you mostly need is money -- billions of dollars worth -- for airplanes, crew and fuel.

Except that Boeing envisions a future in which you can remove the crew part from your shopping list. The aerospace giant is currently studying ways to make already-existing autopilot technology safe enough to fly an aircraft by itself, Reuters reports.

 

The most important ingredient for making autopilots safer, according to Boeing Vice President Mike Sinnett, is artificial intelligence. Autopilots already fly today's commercial jets from a few minutes after takeoff to a few minutes before landing, but they have to be programmed beforehand by human pilots, and reprogrammed every time weather or traffic gets in the way of the flight path.

But infused with AI, the autopilots could potentially do that reprogramming themselves. Sinnett tells Reuters that Boeing will "fly on an airplane next year some artificial intelligence that makes decisions that pilots would make."

He didn't elaborate, but did note that there are immense safety challenges. Even if the technology works, the flying public and government regulators still have to accept it, a dilemma that parallels a key challenge for companies working on self-driving cars. How to convince them is still a mystery to Boeing, though.

"I have no idea how we're going to do that," Sinnett told Reuters. "But we're studying it right now and we're developing those algorithms."

Meanwhile, Boeing's chief rival Airbus is working on a fleet of autonomous flying taxis. It's planning to have a full-size prototype before the end of the year and have a marketable design by 2020.

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