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Self-flying planes could be ready for take-off within a decade

“What I could see is you could connect an airport to a downtown centre and have one route, and just start with one route,” he said at a recent briefing at Boeing’s headquarters in Chicago.

The prediction highlights what Boeing and various start-ups are betting will be a major period of disruption in the aviation market, which is dealing with the same advances in automation that are affecting automobiles.

Illustration: Matt Golding

Illustration: Matt Golding

Just as self-driving cars are closer to becoming a reality on the roads, major airlines including Air New Zealand are working on plans to test self-piloted planes, with similar tests also occurring in Dubai.

But for such changes to become a reality, it would also require further technological advances, big changes in infrastructure and regulation and – perhaps most fundamentally – a travelling public willing to entrust their lives to a light plane piloted by a computer.

After all, aircraft piloted by humans are not infallible as seen by the Lion Air crash in October when a new Boeing 737 jet plummeted into the sea off Jakarta killing all 189 people on board. A pilot flying the same plane earlier had identified technical problems after take-off from Bali, but had pushed on to Jakarta. Hours later the same plane dived into the sea.

It might also be argued most flights are now made on auto-pilot, which is only a step away from fully automated flights. But when things go wrong, a computer is not reassuring.  The 155 people who survived an emergency landing on the Hudson River off Manhattan in 2009 when  both engines of their plane were disabled by birds owe their lives to the skill of their human pilot.


At a media briefing in late 2018, Boeing’s Jones explained the potential for sweeping changes in aviation as the industry responds to big advances in batteries and autonomous driving, as well as environmental pressures, urban congestion, and consumer’s expectations of “on-demand” transport.

One upshot of these pressures is the development of planes targeted at “urban mobility”. Such vehicles are still in early testing and planning, but they would be battery-powered, self-piloting, propeller planes, which might hold about a dozen people and travel relatively short distances within cities.

Across the Tasman, Air New Zealand is working with Zephyr Airworks to bring to market “the world’s first autonomous electric air taxi service”. Air New Zealand chief executive Christopher Luxon said in October that the two companies saw “the potential of our airspace to free people from the constraints of traffic and its associated social, economic and environmental impacts”.

But how willing would customers be to get in a self-flying plane? And how would government regulation need to change in order to let loose a fleet of taxis into the sky?

University of Sydney business school professor Rico Merkert said the changes are technically feasible and there will probably be the first test flights of automated air taxis in about five years. He points to trials of a self-flying air taxi in Dubai, where a self-flying vehicle that transports two people is being tested.

“I think this is coming,” he says. “The difficulty with all this is air-traffic control.”

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority would have to oversee major changes in regulation and sophisticated systems would need to be developed to prevent mid-air collisions.

“At the moment, if you want to operate a drone or something, that drone has to be within sight of the operator. This regulation would have to change,” Professor Merkert says.

Crash site of the Lion Air plane in Indonesia.

Crash site of the Lion Air plane in Indonesia.Credit:AP

For it to be economic, there would need to be “a few hundred” of these vehicles operating at a time, he says. Boeing also says the economics of such a program would significantly depend on whether it’s a five or 15-minute walk for customers to where the aircraft could take off.

Densely populated areas such as cities would be particularly challenging because of the large number of other aircraft likely to also be in the sky at the same time – including drones being used to ferry around freight, and planes still piloted by people.

In recognition of all this, Boeing’s Jones says it would test drones carrying people in unpopulated areas first.

And before any humans are flown around by drones, Boeing is rolling out drones that move cargo over its “last mile” to the customer. If these prove successful, it may also gradually deal with a more fundamental challenge – building confidence among the travelling public that it is safe to get into a plane without a pilot.

“The in-comfort or in-cabin experience doesn’t have to be great for a box,” Jones says. “But also it lets you deploy it in safe areas, and prove out the economic case.”

The reporter travelled to Chicago courtesy of Air New Zealand.

Clancy Yeates writes on business specialising in financial services. Clancy is based in our Sydney newsroom.

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