The Future of Single-Pilot Operations

solitary pilot

In spite of the ongoing debate over how much automation makes aviation safe and what level of human interaction must be maintained to ensure the same, the industry keeps making breakthroughs in technology that continually push the ceiling higher all the time. So, is the end goal single-pilot operations?

Imagine a future where cockpits are designed for one pilot, and there’s a second pilot situated somewhere on the ground that serves as a super dispatcher/first officer hybrid. Proponents of this concept from NASA and the French Air and Space Academy think this is a very probable scenario in the not-so-distant future. Of course, there will likely be pushback on it – from both the political class and the private sector. And there will always be vocal advocates that insist on clear, well-defined demarcations between human-driven tasks and computer-related tasks. Progress is inevitable.

Single-pilot operations (SPOs) have been in the works for the past two decades – through research and simulations. NASA’s own “Free Flight” program even allows scenarios whereby pilots can work directly with dispatchers and controllers to select their own flight paths. The premise is based on a two-seat ground station. The right-seat position would be manned by a super dispatcher that would work with multiple aircraft in flight. If a flight encounters an issue or anomaly, a second person would step into the left seat position to serve as first officer on the ground. Keep in mind: These new ground-based operations would provide completely separate functions from the air traffic control (ATC) functions and therefore would not upend the traditional roles and mission-critical contributions from ATC.

You may be wondering how all of this could be made possible, and the answer is quite simple: automation. Increasingly complex technologies that automate many aeronautical functions and systems have already become an integral part of modern-day aviation. Crew tasks have been greatly simplified because of automation, resulting in fewer crewmembers being needed per flight. It has so enhanced safety that the industry has seen an appreciable drop in accidents since automated systems first started being integrated in 1958. The military has used automation in single-pilot and unmanned aircraft for many years – and successfully too. It really isn’t that big of a stretch to see how automation could give rise to SPO in commercial and general aviation as well.

When you examine the advantages of four generations of automation, you find huge advancements in operational safety and efficiency. Yet in spite of all that, it’s hard to imagine a time in the future where humans would not be involved on board during flights.
According to extensive studies by NASA of how human brains process information and how computers perform computations, the two are as different as night is from day. Computers are relegated to performing complex calculations based on a known set of rules, each with defined boundaries. Humans are not bound by these rules and are therefore far better equipped to respond quickly to sudden changes and quickly shifting parameters.

Aviation will always need human pilots in cockpits – for their unsurpassed problem-solving abilities and affinity for discovery cannot be matched by any machine. But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t revel in the union of man and machine – pilots coupled with automation technologies that continue to improve flight safety. The two should serve to complement each another and optimize situational awareness and proficiencies. It sounds like SPO is the future of aviation, and we should embrace it.