Supersonic, electric or unmanned – which technology will usher in the next generation of civilian aircraft? In the third part of this series, we look at whether unmanned passenger aircraft can truly move from the world of science fiction into reality.

Playing the name game

 Any discussion of unmanned aircraft needs to begin by defining the concept. In this article, we are specifically interested in developments moving the aviation industry toward unmanned aircraft for civilian passenger transportation, meaning the person responsible for piloting the aircraft (if any) is not on board. The most popular term for these vehicles right now appears to be ‘electric vertical takeoff and landing’ (‘eVTOL’) aircraft. (As such, you should definitely also read the second article in this series – ‘What’s new in aircraft technology? The electric revolution’.) You might prefer the term ‘autonomous flying car’, ‘urban mobility solution’ or ‘drone taxi service’ to ‘eVTOL’. The key point is not that the names and concepts vary. The key point is that pilotless passenger aircraft, by whatever name and in whatever form, could revolutionise urban commutes and air travel globally.

Major manufacturers involved

The many aviation giants investing time and money in unmanned passenger aircraft prove pilotless travel must offer long-term commercial potential.

Airbus claims over 150 eVTOL concepts are in development, racing to become market-ready. A full-scale Airbus Vahana eVTOL demonstrator vehicle, for example, is spending 2019 touring international air shows.

A Boeing autonomous passenger air vehicle (PAV) prototype completed a first test flight in Virginia in January 2019 (but has subsequently performed less successfully).

Embraer, like numerous manufacturers, is not revealing many details about the company’s eVTOL work (taking place through the EmbraerX division, dedicated to disruptive innovation). Nonetheless, concept illustrations to date suggest Embraer’s eVTOL might use eight rotors to provide vertical lift and two pusher propellers delivering forward momentum.

EHang, a pioneering Chinese technology company for autonomous aerial vehicles (AAVs), is eager to offer an air taxi service as soon as possible. In August 2019, for example, EHang completed a passenger-carrying demonstration flight in Changchun (China) with the company’s EHang 216 AAV. EHang claims passengers will not need pilot licences to fly the manufacturer’s AAVs and will simply need to choose their destinations on a mobile app.

Are people ready?

No one should expect an overnight leap to pilotless passenger aircraft. A staggered process is essential and underway, carefully and safely developing the technologies needed and meeting the regulatory requirements. Bell’s FCX-001 Concept Helicopter, for example, is described by the company as a “stepping stone” to fully autonomous unpiloted VTOL vehicles.

In fact, the biggest obstacle to the rapid commercial implementation of pilotless passenger aircraft is likely to be human caution rather than a technological limitation. Many people are not yet comfortable with the concept of pilotless flight. Nonetheless, winning public trust might only be a short-term challenge, not a long-term problem.

No one should worry traditional pilot jobs are about to disappear, although the approaching global pilot shortage might be eased a little by the emergence of eVTOLs. Initially, we might see some VTOLs being flown by a single pilot in the aircraft supported by a remote pilot on the ground.

When will theory become reality?

Fixing exact dates on the future progress of eVTOLs is very difficult indeed. But one company certainly worth monitoring is global transportation giant Uber, planning the launch of demonstrator eVTOL operations in Dallas (Texas), Los Angeles (California) and Melbourne (Australia) in 2020, with commercial operations scheduled to launch in 2023.

In the future, flight simulators might need to evolve to reflect the emerging role of the remote pilot, not on board the aircraft. At AXIS, we are renowned for developing products for tomorrow today. Whatever flight training needs arise, we will be there to meet the demand.