Pilotless planes

So when are we going to see pilotless planes? We have the technology as they say. Insane? Not really. If you’d mentioned the idea on an elevator (passenger lift) without a human operative to someone in the 1920s they would probably have thought you were mad. Now we don’t give the idea a second thought.

We have UAVs (Unmanned Ariel Vehicles) already in warfare and I’d imagine pilotless cargo planes may be next. So how about a totally pilotless passenger jet by 2050? We could do this tomorrow if we wanted to.

The Future of Aviation

Following on from my earlier post about scenarios for the future of aviation, I’m still thinking about flying. In terms of no-brainers, the three highest impact events are likely to be a high (or volatile) oil price, legally binding emission regulations and either massive growth or massive collapse of passenger demand caused by some kind of external factor – most probably security fears (another 9/11 style-event) or the state of the global economy.

Industry consolidation looks reasonably certain, especially if you have some cash-rich nations (oil producers or Asian sovereign wealth funds for example) flying alongside some very indebted nations and carriers. Growth of low-cost seems a reasonable assumption, along with the development of low-cost cargo and low-cost long haul, although as the oil price rises (or carbon costs bite) I think you’d expect some level of substitution towards ground based transport for short-haul.

Growth of technology is another big one. This would cover everything from an expansion of virtualization (less need to physically travel) through to greater cockpit automation and even UAVs (less need for pilots arguably). Technically we could have pilot-less planes right now, but I suspect that he general public couldn’t quite stomach the idea at 30,000 feet.

Technology would also take costs out at the bottom level and add to overall experience at the other. For example, how about an airline seat that recognizes who you are when you sit down and selects favorite films, music and so on (not much different from high-end car seats that recognize individual drivers and adjust themselves (and the radio station).

On the last flight I took (LHR-JFK) last week the steward had written my food order and frequent-flyer status on a bit of paper and stuck it to the kitchen wall with masking tape. I’m sure there’s a better way of doing that!

You’d also expect technology to have a huge impact on aircraft design, creating lighter and stronger structures, more efficient engines (lower fuel burn so greater range) and fewer emissions, although I’m not convinced that this would, in itself, transform the industry. Smaller airports with smaller planes? I can’t see this making much of an impact either.

Overall I’m starting to see two potential scenarios. The first is more or less business as usual with global growth in passenger numbers sitting alongside higher operating costs and rising congestion, especially at airports.  This scenario could split, with a rather nasty no-frills industry at one end (think of the stress and discomfort of flying with Aeroflot in the 1970s) sitting next to pure decadence at the other (think of the dawn of flying, with jet travel as the ultimate luxury experience – but only if you could afford it).

The second broad scenario is more or less collapse. Fuel costs, carbon legislation, terrorist attacks or virtualization wipe out most of the industry and it’s back to the 1950s with a resurgence of rail, long-distance sea journeys and localized road transport.

Scenarios for the future of aviation

OK, I need some help. I’m doing a talk about the future of aviation to the British Air Line Pilots Association (BALPA). It’s essentially a trends talk, but I want to end on a slide showing a rough scenario matrix outlining four alternatives futures. I think it’s a no brainer (or maybe not?) that one axis takes into account the price of oil ( the deep driver being something else).

So what’s the other axis? In an ideal world it would be something technical or professional because BALPA is a professional association and trade union. I quite like degree of automation or something around business models, but I’m not sure.

What else is there? Maybe something around the expansion of low-cost airlines (maybe a link here with union representation, training budgets and so on?), level of substitution from other forms of transport, climate change (carbon costs), evolution of technology (especially UAVs), need/desire to travel (growth of telepresence through to terrorism), level of affluence (economy in general), airline industry consolidation or something around professionalism or reputation.

BTW, in my travels around cyber-space I’ve found a few quite good sources around the future of aviation. The best one, in my view, is the Future of Aviation 2025 another reasonable one is Rethinkng Aviation and there is also a Future Scenarios for European Aviation report, some 2050 Vision work from Airbus  and something quite nice from IBM.

Speed (the lack of)

79.jpgHere’s a funny thing. Thanks to technology and globalisation life is speeding up. But some things are actually slowing down. Traffic speeds in London are now slower than they were fifty years ago. The new VW Golf GTi is slower than the mark 1 GTi and the new ‘super jumbo’ jet is slower than the original. Back on the roads we have governments trying to slow us down whilst we are buying faster cars. Hence the boom in private ‘track days’ for owners of high performance vehicles (because where else can you drive them at full speed?). Ideas for slowing cars down on the other hand include roads with no road markings (apparently they reduce speed and accidents) and sentencing qualified drivers to L-Plates. Is this the end of driving for pleasure? It certainly looks like the beginning of the end.

Reinvention of public transport

83.jpgIt would seem logical that as roads (and parking spaces) fill up there would be a growth in public and mass transport. However, the car is so linked to ideas of individualism, freedom, private space and personal identity that we are unlikely to give up private car ownership in the short term. For example, in the UK 70% of people still drive to work. In theory high oil prices should put people off, but that’s what people said twenty years ago. From a sustainability point of view, the future must see the re-invention of public transport on a mass scale, but people will not embrace the idea until governments start thinking long term and build networks that are safe, clean, convenient and affordable. And a good start might be for politicians and business leaders to actually start using public transport themselves.

Car politics

84.jpgAccording to the New Economics Forum (a UK think tank), owners of 4×4 (SUV) vehicles should be forced to display health warnings on the side of their cars similar to the health warnings seen on cigarette packs. We’ve already seen tax rates, licence charges and even interest rates on car loans linked to vehicle type so expect to see anti-car sentiment linked to specific government policies in the future. For example, large 4×4 vehicles could be banned from certain areas at certain times of day or local councils could offer free inner city parking for owners of hybrid, electric or small commuter cars.


78.jpgIn 2002, 42,815 people died on America’s roads and while cars have been getting safer for years there is still a way to go. Future innovations will probably include the widespread adoption of technologies like lane warning and guidance devices, blind spot alarms, radar-assisted cruise control, remote speed control, speed caps, sleep alarms and even night vision devices. However, one could argue that all of these ideas insulate the driver from reality and what’s really needed is less technology and comfort not more. As someone once said, the safest car in the world would simply have a sharp blade sticking out of the steering wheel.

Embedded intelligence

81.jpgAudi is experimenting with fingerprint technology to adjust seat settings, temperature control and radio settings. It doesn’t open the doors or start the engine, but it could. Other ‘intelligent’ features already include tyres that tell the driver when they’re getting flat or engines that tell you when they need a service. The McLaren F1 supercar even calls the factory when it realises something is wrong, so that the factory can dispatch a mechanic with the necessary spare parts (they already know where the car is via GPS). Is this all a sign of things to come? Probably. We’ve already got cars that talk to the driver (badly) so cars that talk to the manufacturers and each other can’t be far away.