AI in Aviation: No pilots needed in the cockpit?

AI has entered the cockpit of the aviation industry and it is starting to steer the aviation industry to a safer landing. In other words, employing AI could potentially improve fight safety. This means that AI is about to change the face of air travel dramatically and start to replace a lot of pilots in the cockpit. The skies have become significantly busier over the past 2 decades and as air traffic continues to increase, planes will have to ‘thread the needle’ between twice as many commercial airlines as before, when flying. Being interlinked and communicating well is the key to coordinating with the thousands of other planes darting around in our skies.

An AI system was developed by researchers at the universities of Braunschweig and Munich. It leverages machine-vision to and processes visual data of the runway the plane is about to land on. It effortlessly steers the plane to a safe landing without any human intervention required! Human pilots have a vision that’s limited by the visible light spectrum whereas the AI technology effectively uses the infrared sensors to see what humans cannot. This gives it an edge over pilots during harsh weather conditions such as fog, that might make it hard for a human pilot to make out the landing strip. Additionally, this system doesn’t rely on radio signals provided by existing ILS(Instrument Landing System) which smaller airports couldn’t afford anyways. All these useful features mean that this assistive technology could go a long way in improving this industry and eventually take full control of our flights. Boeing managed to complete a fully autonomous landing of a passenger aircraft in early 2019.

The plane autonomously landed successfully while the human pilot sat completely idle

The plane autonomously landed successfully while the human pilot sat completely idle

However, there is an important reason behind pilots still being paid extravagant salaries each year, it’s because 100s of people’s lives depend on a pilot’s ability. They solely have to shoulder this responsibility with which comes accountability. I’m mentioning this because with every new software that can be connected to the internet, comes a risk of it being hacked. Some of the landing systems which rely on machine vision could be fooled simply by someone adding extra, misleading markings on a runway and cause the landing to go disastrously. Simple sabotage attempts such as this one could cost many people their lives so it is safe to assume that it is currently too early to fully rely on AI systems alone in the cockpit. In the approaching decade, we expect AI systems to only assist pilots, not take complete control of the planes. Pilots have started supervising AI-led plane journeys from the ground, as they are permanently linked to the flight’s management systems during the entirety of the journey.


Automation doesn’t necessarily mean that the pilot would be any less in control of the flight, it could mean that they’re more well supported by the technologies to land the plane
— Dr David Leslie
AI in the future will provide pilots with the keys to managing complexity—which means assuring safety. Pilots are confronted with many simultaneous situations where they need to make critical decisions. With increasing air traffic, the reduced separation between planes and heavier workloads, pilots will have less time to react to events or conditions. These can be anything from changing weather to incidents with engines, hydraulic equipment, landing gear or even a bird striking the aircraft. Artificial intelligence will support pilots in making the right decisions as they have little time to spare.
— Andre Cleroux