Will A Robot Steal Your Pilot Job?


I’m sure I’m not the only one hearing this question: A friend or relative reports that a son or daughter is interested in a piloting career and, well, you’re a pilot, what’s your advice? I field this query carefully.

While I think the profession definitely has legs, my concern is that in the next two decades—if not sooner—automated and autonomous flight will have developed sufficiently to put downward pressure on both wages and the number and kind of flying jobs available. So if a kid asks the question now and he or she is 18, 20 years from now will be 2037 and our would-be careerist will be 38—not even mid-career. Who among us thinks aviation and especially for-hire flying will look like it does now?

I’ve been interested in this for awhile and I’m currently reading Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History by Thomas Rid. The author quotes an early cybernetic researcher, Norbert Wiener, as having written this of emerging automation in the late 1950s: “It is perfectly clear that this will produce an unemployment situation in comparison with which … the depression of the thirties will seem a pleasant joke.”

He overstated the case, right? So far, yes. But the truth is that majority of the jobs that evaporated from the industrial Midwest didn’t go to China, they were phased out in favor of automation. No one knows with a high degree of confidence what will happen in the next 20 years, or even 10. But companies in the aviation business have to plan for a future they can’t predict, so I asked various people in the industry when flight autonomy or automation will noticeably impact the workforce. Here’s what they told me:

You are asking a tough question. My quick answer is that we are at least 10 to 15 years away before there is true autonomous capability in manned critical aircraft. The key is how quickly the software can develop to effectively deal with crisis situations in a truly dynamic way. Although machines can now beat us in strategy games such as chess and Go, it is because they can run the simulations so fast they examine all alternatives.

However, speed is relative as they still take time to reach the correct move. Such time is not available in a complex situation such as an aircraft moving at 500 knots. The best example I can give is Sully. The textbook said turn, Sully said glide and land straight ahead.

It is definitely coming, but I still think it will not impact pilots for another decade plus. One side thing for me is does this impact GA (piston range) where people fly because they want to have some involvement in pointing the plane? Conversely, does it revive the industry by taking the low-annual-flight-time pilot risk out of the equation and allow more people to fly because it is one button from start to landing?

Rhett Ross
Continental Motors

I guess the answer would be this: When do you believe people will be transported autonomously? While the technical ability will be there in three to five years, it still would be another five for regulatory changes, so a total of 10 years.

Then many years to get people comfortable with the concept. So the long answer is 15 years at the earliest, but my real belief is never. Looking at population growth, air-carrier capacity, people’s acceptance of new modes of transportation, it all adds up to airlines that will need pilots now and into the future. It will not be a career in danger of shrinking. Add the pilot retirement problem and the next 15 years is boom time for new pilot careers.

Jack Pelton
EAA Chairman and former Cessna CEO

I think it will not impact pilot hiring and if I have to guess, I think, it will actually favorably impact pilot hiring. Autonomous flight capability is going to not just extend by a little, but by a lot utilization of aircraft, and GA in particular.

Technology is a way to reach out to masses and make something for a few available to more people. Our aviation system is still qualified by expertise. With autonomous flight capability, the pilot skills will be reduced to more monitoring rather than piloting, thus opening aviation to a much larger variety of candidates.

It is a huge opportunity for aviation. And commercial airlines, particular low-cost companies, have clearly understood that pilots are no longer the highest compensation in the salary scheme. Good or bad, we will leave an era for aviators to flyers with safer and simpler aircraft to fly.

Nic Chabbert

Behind the curtain, aircraft manufacturers are working on a single-pilot cockpit where the airplane can be controlled from the ground and only in case of malfunction does the pilot of the plane interfere.

Basically the flight will be autonomous and I expect this to happen in the next five to six years for freighters. For GA, autonomous flying capable aircraft are mainly a safety factor.

Christian Dries
Diamond Aircraft Austria

Not a clue, I’m afraid.

Richard Aboulafia
Teal Group

We have just been having this discussion inside Lycoming. As you know, we’re part of Textron Systems and the unmanned unit supplies UAV/RPV system soup-to-nuts, meaning from the aircraft operator to the ground station to the aircraft itself for multiple platforms (Aerosonde, Gray Eagle, Shadow, Orion).

You phrased the question using the words “autonomous flight capability.” I’d say “autonomous” is a pretty expansive and broad definition. That will be awhile. A better word may be “manned-unmanned teaming” or “augmented flight capability” that enables fewer (or lesser skilled) pilots to control the aircraft. Or one pilot to control multiple aircraft. The augmented situation is happening now (and has been happening) with flight engineers and navigators no longer in the cockpit and operators (not pilots) controlling UAVs with waypoint instructions.

For the broader impact, the maturity of the military-use systems is at a point now where (my opinion) you are not talking about reliability problems with the technology. So technology readiness level is not the inhibitor. What will pace the impact will be the acceptance by people of people not being in the cockpit, whether by politicians, the FAA, the pilot unions or the passengers buying tickets.

If there are people in the aircraft – whether military or civilian – they will want to see a warm body that they think is the pilot who did the walk-around to ensure the aircraft was safe to fly. But in 10 to 20 years, you may not see two people up front and you may not see multiple crews on long-haul flights. The skilled pilot will be engaged, whether from the cockpit or the ground remotely, when an unanticipated event occurs that the augmented flight toolkit was not programmed to handle.

So to answer your question, I think it’s happening now. But it’s not driverless-car autonomy. It’s humans augmented by machines to control complex equipment with simpler commands. Like Sulu controlling the Enterprise single handedly versus a hundred engineers launching Apollo.

Michael Kraft
Lycoming Engines

Maybe I am really old school, but I can’t see that happening in my lifetime. They are doing autonomous bus trials in Germany in 2022, I believe, which is not far away at all and seems harder to me than flying an airplane airport to airport.

But aviation is so conservative. I can certainly see autonomous flight becoming more mainstream, but to launch an airliner full of pax on a regular basis, I think we are very far away. That it would impact pilot hiring, I would expect at least two to three decades, if not more.

But then we all thought glass cockpits in new aircraft would be just an option.

Peter Maurer
Diamond Aircraft Canada

I think it is still many years off as people still feel that machines break. So until they have many years of problem-free operation, they will want a human in the cockpit.Even drones are still flown by a human at this point.Minimum 15 years. Probably 20-plus.

Jim Allmon
Blackhawk Modifications

The short answer is no time soon. The general public may be comfortable with a small quadcopter delivering packages, but they will be far less willing to accept large aircraft without a trained and qualified pilot at the controls.

George Perry,
Senior Vice President
AOPA’s Air Safety Institute