Autonomous vehicles — especially driverless transportation fleets — have the potential to change logistics tremendously, but not without posing some risks. Even the most intelligent driverless system could run into issues on the open road, especially considering the human element is still a factor. But what happens if logistics professionals and fleet owners take the road out of the equation? Better yet, what happens when autonomous vehicles take flight?
That is precisely why Reliable Robotics has been making headlines in recent years. In addition to being awarded a U.S. Air Force contract, it also received acceptance from the Federal Aviation Administration for certification of its autonomous aircraft navigation system. The platform will help control and pilot autonomous fixed-wing aircraft across several industries, enabling remote piloting.
The system helps maintain situational awareness around the craft and can adjust the flight plan, all from remote devices like an iPad. Command, control, voice and data links are all available remotely, too. Operators can communicate with air traffic controllers, for example, just as a traditional pilot would be able to.
As impressive as the technology is, the pressing question is what this will mean for the global supply chain. How long will it be until people see autonomous aircraft used in the real world? How will this change the industry for better or worse?
The History of Flight
Since the first heavier-than-air, machine-powered flight happened on December 17, 1903, the airplane has played a massive role in transportation, logistics and supply chain. The first commercial air freight test took place years later on November 7, 1910, carrying two bolts of silk from Dayton to Columbus, Ohio.
The silk weighed approximately 200 pounds, but the trip was not just a quick drop-off — it was actually a race against an express train. Completing the flight in 57 minutes officially, it was a world speed record at the time and the rest is history.
Airplanes and aircraft have been used ever since to transport mail and parcels, goods, people and even vehicles and military equipment. That said, real people have always piloted and operated freight aircraft. Although modern systems make flight more automated and handle a lot of the nuanced controls, there are still generally pilots at the yoke.
If successful — and efforts are proving to be so — Reliable Robotics’ autonomous aircraft system will change all of that as citizens and professionals know it. Commercial and freight aircraft may soon be piloted almost entirely by computer and AI-based solutions.
More Flights Than Ever Before
One of the significant implications of autonomous aircraft is more time spent in the air with faster and more accurate trips. Human pilots grow tired and weary, need breaks and must see their families. So, flights have always had to be scheduled based on their availability up until now.
It’s not unlike long-haul trucking, where the drivers face many health risks, spend long and lonely days on the road and so on. It also means flights cannot operate indefinitely, provided there’s fuel available. Commercial and freight craft always have to come back down to the ground for extended periods until the pilots can get back into the cockpit.
Autonomous controls can be piloted remotely, meaning those flights can remain in the air for longer. When they do have to land — for fuel, for example — it can be done fast and without delays. This benefit will extend to commercial supply lines as goods can be transported faster, more frequently and more reliably.
In addition to the costs of training and compensating pilots, the planes themselves will see efficiency improvements thanks to the automated systems. Similar to how travel routes on the ground can affect fuel consumption, maintenance and travel times, so can air paths. The autonomous solutions can be programmed to analyze, discover and follow optimized routes, significantly maximizing value and reducing overhead.
Couple that with the fact that companies no longer need pilots in the cockpit — at least not physically — the remote staff can be offered more convenience like breaks and shift change and the implication that overall costs will be reduced more than ever before. Pilots are one of the most expensive parts of air freight and cargo operations. It’s difficult to stress enough just how much will be saved by autonomous craft.
Some professionals may be undecided on computers and AI solutions empowering in-flight automation. The same is true of automated vehicles back on the ground. However, there’s no denying that an automated system will run better, longer and more efficiently than the average human pilot.
As mentioned previously, pilots grow weary, need breaks and sometimes make mistakes, both naturally and brought on by other events — heavy drinking and substance use, for example. The implication is not that all pilots are dangerous or reckless, but merely that automated aircraft powered by inhuman solutions don’t have the same needs or issues. That by itself warrants better safety and more successful flight in many ways.
When talking about commercial flights, everything has to be on time and efficient. A minor delay can cause considerable hiccups in the chain, so the increased reliability of automation will be a welcome boon. Additionally, there can be an increase in safety and possibly the number of successful flights. Approximately 75% of airplane and commercial flight accidents are due to human error, including pilots, air traffic controllers, mechanics and so on.
However, that’s not to say pilots and drivers will go completely by the wayside. Human intervention is still necessary in many aspects of driving to avoid potentially disastrous complications. But working alongside such advanced technology can improve safety and help ensure fewer significant disruptions to the supply chain occur.
Revisiting the Implications of Autonomous Aircraft
The best part of all this is that Reliable Robotics’ autonomous solutions aren’t just for commercial and freight aircraft. They may soon be used for passenger aircraft, as well, enhancing and improving the entire industry of flight.
Of course, it’s still early days and while the technology is currently being tested heavily, it may be a few years before people see it used by commercial freight companies. When it does come to market, expect to see vastly improved flight operations, better safety for the entire industry and lower associated costs — fuel, maintenance, training, personnel and beyond.
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