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Why do we need autonomy in aerospace?

There are three main problems that autonomy addresses. They apply differently to different market segments.

1. Safety—While commercial air transport is one of the safest forms of transportation, general aviation (business jets, helicopters, recreational aircraft, etc.) is less safe for transporting either people or goods. One example is 2017, the safest year on record for air travel. There wasn’t a single fatality on a passenger jet. But for general aviation, in the same year, there were 346 deaths in the US alone and 121 deaths in Europe.

Additionally, in 2002-2011, there were just 0.4 fatal accidents per million hours of CAT flights compared with 12.8 in general aviation. Also, in 2015-2019, there were 2,300 general aviation fatalities in the EU alone (compared with 272 in CAT). Of these 2,300 deaths, 465 (20%) were considered to have human factors as the root cause, including performance issues (‘perception’, ‘personnel action’ and ‘attention and vigilance’, amongst others). 

The FAA cites ‘loss of control in-flight’ followed by ‘controlled flight into terrain’ (often in poor weather) as the top causes of a small aircraft crash. EASA has identified ‘experience, training and competence of individuals’ as a contributing factor in general aviation accidents. Regarding this, autonomy could be an excellent tool for assisting a human pilot, supporting them and helping them to detect potential collisions and land more safely.

2. Capacity—One of the aviation industry’s biggest problems is the shortage of pilots, airspace, air traffic controllers and the system’s bandwidth behind. According to CAE, before COVID-19, the industry globally was already having difficulty finding qualified pilots. Over the next ten years, current commercial operations are expected to require 320,000 newly trained individuals. On top of that, urban or advanced aerial mobility, a nascent industry, will add to this demand, requiring at least 60,000 pilots by as early as 2028. The COVID-19 crisis deferred the need for new pilots. However, this shortage will reappear a couple of years down the line. 

3. Economics—Cargo is one industry segment considered ripe for autonomy to expand into. A crucial reason is public perception. There will be very few people willing to board a plane with no pilot from day one. Autonomy will also be a great opportunity for logistics: using small propeller aircrafts such as Cessna, which are easy to land and take off, to transport goods over short distances (50-300 miles). These small aircraft cannot carry much cargo, meaning a human pilot is not cost-effective. But if we can remove the pilot, then this becomes a compelling case for innovation.

Commercial air transport will be the last segment to get fully pilotless operations simply because the bulk of this business is to carry passengers. However, the option of removing even one pilot from the cockpit will bring immense savings to the airlines.

Commercial pilot training is an expensive undertaking

For recreational piloting, having more automation with more functions transferred to technology means simpler, shorter, and cheaper pilot education. And this aspect, together with the increased safety when a plane lands itself if necessary, broadens the audience for recreational flights. 

The greatest value proposition for autonomy in terms of economics lies in urban air mobilitythe air taxis of the future. In terms of urban air mobility, the aircraft will transport from two to five people, so a pilot makes up quite a significant part of this aircraft’s load. It isn't easy to assess the future viability of air taxis as a business segment. This forecast will require making assumptions about utilisation, life cycles, infrastructure and electricity costs and many more. However, removing the cost associated with pilots removes a major blocker for a sound business case.