Op-ed|Should We Turn Commercial Aircraft into Drones?

Brice Robin, chief Marseille prosecutor, shocked the world Thursday when he said that the co-pilot of Grermanwings flight 4U 9525 deliberately locked the cockpit door and crashed the Airbus A320 into a the French Alps.

Here is a video of Robin’s statement.

Officials said yesterday that the aircraft’s voice recorder captured the sound of people banging on the door, trying to bash it down. The co-pilot refused to let the crew back into the cockpit.

Many airlines responded to the horrific story by announcing changes to their policies. Reuters reports that, among others, Norwegian Air and Air Canada will now require that two crew members be in the cockpit at all times.

It is fitting at times like this to evaluate current practices and to think of new ways such a disaster might be avoided in the future. Implementing a two-pilot rule is a prudent decision after Tuesday’s events and will help assuage fears. But perhaps now is the time to make a quiet suggestion in hopes of starting a discussion.

What would commercial aviation look like if the aircraft were piloted remotely? What if we turned commercial aircraft into drones?

Imagine flying from Los Angeles to New York without needing a pilot onboard. At a ground station in Chicago, drone pilots would remotely fly the aircraft from city to city.  Perhaps there could be one pilot onboard, just in case. But should the need arise, officials would be able take complete control of the aircraft.

This is not science fiction. The U.S. Defense Advance Research Projects Agency is already developing this kind of technology. A few days ago, we reported on DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System  (ALIAS) program.  The goal of the program is to make a kit that can be installed into any aircraft and turn it into a drone. As DARPA describes it,

As an automation system, ALIAS would execute a planned mission from takeoff to landing, even in the face of contingency events such as aircraft system failures.

Think of the safety benefits. Fatigued pilots could be swapped out easily.  A passenger with malicious intentions would not be able to redirect the aircraft. Traditional hijackings would be very difficult if the plane’s controls were not in the cockpit.

Could this sort of technology have a use in the commercial aviation market? If so, it would take time to be safely developed. And everyone knows that the Federal Aviation Administration has more than enough drone-related issues do deal with right now.

But the question still stands. People are already talking about self-driving cars. Why shouldn’t we talk about self-flying airplanes?

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