Airbus reaches for the sky by exploring single-pilot option

Updated 2017-11-24 10:32:20 China Daily

Airbus SE is looking to develop autonomous aircraft and technologies that will allow a single pilot to operate commercial jetliners.

This will help the giant European aviation corporation cut costs, according to Paul Eremenko, the company's chief technology officer.

"The more disruptive approach is to say maybe we can reduce the crew needs for our future aircraft," Eremenko said.

"We're pursuing a single-pilot operation as a potential option and a lot of the technologies needed to make that happen has also put us on the path toward an automated operation," he added.

The aerospace industry has begun seeing a similar trend as the car market, where automakers are investing in or acquiring autonomous driving startups.

Plane manufacturers, including Airbus and Boeing Co, are racing to develop artificial intelligence that will one day enable computers to fly planes without human beings at the controls.

Turning that idea into a practical reality will not be easy in an industry where at least two pilots in the cockpit have been the norm for commercial flights for several decades.

After a Germanwings pilot flew an A320 aircraft into the French Alps in March 2015, killing all 150 people on board, many airlines around the world made at least two people in the cockpit mandatory at all times.

In addition to there being no transport-category aircraft certificated for a single pilot or pilotless flight, it is unclear whether passengers, or their insurers or carriers, would accept or permit it, said aviation consultant Robert Mann, a former American Airlines executive.

"People are arguably apprehensive about these kind of things," said Shukor Yusof, founder of aviation consulting firm Endau Analytics in Malaysia. "You have driverless cars, driverless buses, but for something that flies, that is something different."

Airbus has a division called Urban Air Mobility that is exploring technology from on-demand helicopter rides to delivery drones.

Boeing announced last month it had purchased a company that is developing flying taxis for Uber Technologies Inc and also bought into a hybrid electric aircraft company.

Last week, Airbus agreed to set up an innovation center in Shenzhen, Guangdong province in China.

The facility will help accelerate research needed to chart the future of air travel, and China will provide Airbus an opportunity to design and develop such technologies.

"I think the general aviation space in China is just opening up," Eremenko said.

"There's an opportunity for China to sort of take a leap ahead as it has been prone to do in other areas," he added.

Airbus has also signed a cooperation agreement with Invest Shenzhen, an organization affiliated with the municipal government.

It was set up to establish long-term strategic partnerships to accelerate innovation and shape the future of flight.

"The innovation center will benefit from policy planning, talent resources and a favorable investment and financing environment from Shenzhen to impact aviation innovation," said Luo Gang, CEO of the Airbus China Innovation Center.

The France-based company is also exploring technologies that will bring more automation to the cockpit of planes that could help resolve a shortage of pilots in countries such as China, which is set to emerge as the world's biggest aviation market in less than a decade.

Talks are taking place with Chinese firms such as Baidu Inc to find ways to apply self-driving vehicles to aircraft.

Boeing estimates that 637,000 pilots will be needed to fly commercial aircraft globally in the next two decades.

"The industry needs to find ways to produce more cockpit crew," Eremenko said.

Airbus's A3 Silicon Valley think tank has been working on its proposed Vahana flying taxi, due for its first test flight this year. The single-person electric vehicle could cut journey times for city dwellers over a range of 50 miles, according to Airbus.

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