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Boeing preps pilotless passenger flights – once it has solved the Sully problem, of course

Avoid blue screens of blazing death, please

The days of listening to the captain speaking on a flight may be numbered, according to Boeing.

The aerospace giant has been actively working on pilotless technology and has already built an automatic take-off and landing system into its newest model, the 787 Dreamliner. The industry is also facing a severe shortage of pilots, so Boeing is looking for a high-tech solution.

"The basic building blocks of the technology are clearly available," Mike Sinnett, VP at Boeing responsible for future technologies, told the Seattle Times.

"There's going to be a transition from the requirement to have a skilled aviator operate the airplane to having a system that operates the vehicle autonomously, if we can do that with the same level of safety. That's a really big 'if'."

The gold standard, he explained, is to build an AI flight system that can replicate Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's 2009 landing of a crippled jet on the Hudson river in New York, losing no passengers in the process. The captain was praised for choosing his unusual landing spot rather than trying to make it to an airport – which, as was later realized, was highly unlikely to have worked. However, getting a computer to make the same decision is a challenge.

"We are not smart enough to pre-program all those things. The machine has to be capable of making the same set of decisions," Sinnett said. "If it can't, we cannot go there."

Next year, Boeing is planning to do some test flights with an autonomous airplane, albeit one loaded with pilots and engineers rather than passengers. The aircraft will be put through a variety of tests to see how it reacts to changing situations. Its decisions will be judged by the human crew.

While air travel is incredibly safe in comparison to road transportation, when things go wrong in the air then they often go very seriously wrong indeed. Sinnett said he recognized that if passengers were to be reassured, the safety had to be impeccable.

"We've got to be as good as zero," he said, speaking of the number of deaths the public would tolerate.

It's not just the public – Boeing will need to persuade the Federal Aviation Administration about the plan. The FAA isn't going to like the idea of an aircraft without pilots, since computer systems can always fail. So expect at least one pilot to remain on station in the near future. ®

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