Welcome To The Age of Pilotless Planes

A British research firm recently flew a passenger plane through public airspace--without a pilot.

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Attention passengers, your captain is now … sitting at a control station on the ground?

Completely pilotless planes are getting closer to becoming a reality. In April, a private passenger plane was tested in public British airspace, flying approximately 500 miles from Warton, a town in the northern part of England, to Inverness, Scotland.

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The 16-seat plane, dubbed the "Flying Test Bed," used a pilot to take off and land, but flew autonomously the rest of the time, using "sense and avoid" technology to avoid a series of fake objects that were put in place by ASTRAEA, a British research agency working to make pilotless aircraft a reality.

The perfection of the "sense and avoid" technology is a major hang-up, delaying the widespread implementation of unmanned aerial vehicles in the United States as the Federal Aviation Administration seeks to make sure drones can easily avoid any unplanned mid-flight obstacles.

Last month's test in the United Kingdom was a good start, according to British business and energy minister Michael Fallon, who told the BBC that the flight was "pioneering."

The U.S. military has been using drones for years, deploying them for tactical strikes, surveillance and intelligence gathering. Forces are even using unmanned aircraft to deliver cargo in the far reaches of Afghanistan. But soon, pilotless planes might begin carrying passengers around the world.

Missy Cummings, a former fighter pilot with the United State Air Force and currently a researcher at MIT studying unmanned aerial vehicles, says she realizes pilots are an endangered species.

"The heyday of the commercial pilot is over," she says. "The heyday of the fighter pilot is over. We're going to replace everything with a [drone]."

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Of course, planes have been flying with autopilot for many years, but soon, pilots might not even man the controls for takeoff and landing.

There are already several types of military planes that can be operated in either manned or unmanned modes. For instance, Aurora Flight Sciences' Centaur is an "optionally piloted aircraft" – it has space for a pilot onboard, but can be operated from the ground for up to 24 hours.

New planes don't have to be built from scratch in order to implement a pilotless mode – many planes already have most of the technology necessary to fly without a pilot.

"What most people don't realize is that, if they're flying in an Airbus aircraft or a Boeing aircraft, the pilot is really just there babysitting the plane," she says. "We can convert many existing planes to unmanned aerial vehicles with very little fanfare."

[READ: General Says Autonomous Drones Are 'Years and Years' Away]

For years, the military has been converting planes from piloted to pilotless – the Air Force's QF-4, which used to be one of its most popular manned fighter planes, has more recently been used in automated mode to simulate enemy aircraft. The Convair F-106 Delta Dart, which was used from the 1960s through the 1980s, was converted to drone mode in the late 1980s and used for target practice, until the last one was destroyed in 1998.

Cummings says the advantages of an unmanned fighter jet or passenger vehicle are obvious.

"It's cool and fun to fly a plane, but that doesn't mean I'm going to be better at flying it than a computer. The computer doesn't get tired," she says.

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