A flight attendant gives the in-flight safety speech…
She reminds all passengers to store their bags under their seats or in the overhead compartments above.
She explains that there is no smoking and that the use of electronic devices during takeoff is prohibited.
Most of the passengers ignore the bit about the oxygen masks, emergency exits, and unlikely event of an emergency water landing – they’ve all heard it before.
The aircraft ascends to 35 thousand feet, seat-belts come off, and drinks are served.
Suddenly, a passenger notices the flight attendant exiting the cockpit. There is a look of terror on her face as she screams, “There’s no one flying the plane!”
But everyone on board just laughs – unmanned aviation has become the norm of commercial air travel, and that joke is more common than a complimentary bag of peanuts.
Safety in Numbers
If you find the idea of autonomous planes unsettling, you might find some relative comfort in the fact that drones may actually be more reliable pilots than humans. The fact is, humans are not machines, and air travel often requires pilots to push beyond their biological limits.
In fact, 75 percent of plane crashes are products of pilot error. Recent research also shows that over 20 percent of pilots are awake for 28 hours or more before the end of their shift.
If that’s not unsettling enough, know that human judgment is considered to be “seriously impaired” after 18 hours of being awake. Just think about how well you would be able to drive after being up that long…
But while we overwork our accident-prone human pilots, drone safety is steadily improving. In 2005, there were 22 Air Force drone accidents for every 100,000 hours of flight. In 2012, that figure fell to 3.5 for every 100,000 hours. Furthermore, most of these mishaps are the result of factors that would not be present during commercial flights.
First, the Air Force is willing to take greater risks, such as pushing fuel limits, to accomplish missions with drones. In the case of commercial flights, the presence of human passengers would force far more stringent guidelines on flight safety.
Second, the majority of drone crashes are due to the vehicle losing signal, which is a non-issue with commercial flights that have designated flight paths.
And the removal of human pilots won’t just reduce biological error – it will reduce employment costs as well. With increased safety and decreased cost, the wide-scale adoption of commercial drone travel is inevitable.
This UAV revolution is arguably the single most important aviation development since the Wright Brothers took to the air in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.
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A Modern Kitty Hawk
In April of this year, the first unmanned passenger aircraft flew across UK airspace. The 16-seat Jetstream-31 safely flew 500 miles, controlled remotely by a pilot on the ground.
The vehicle was equipped with on-board sensors and robotics to avoid potential hazards such as other planes. These sensors are so advanced that they can differentiate between cloud types and plot new trajectories for evasive action.
The success of the flight hints to the future of commercial travel, with traffic control experts agreeing that commercial drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), could operate in multiple classes of airspace.
The Jetstream-31 is a BAE Systems (LSE: BA) vehicle and is part of the Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment (ASTRAEA) program. The program’s goal is to develop drones that will operate in everyday civilian airspace.
Alongside BAE, Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC) has also recently developed a new drone: the X-47B, which can autonomously take off and land on an aircraft carrier.
With the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) opening the National Airspace System (NAS) to commercial drones in 2015, this is an industry that is set to take off within a decade.
I will definitely be keeping an eye on companies like BAE and Northrop that are building strong foundations in the commercial drone sector.
For now though, companies focused on small drones will provide better investment opportunities in the short term. Small drones can be used for a variety of applications and will be the first commercial drones to enter United States airspace. To learn more about the small drone industry, read this article here.
Turning progress to profits,
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