Pilotless Summit 2024: The hurdles ahead for unmanned aircraft

Pilotless Summit 2024: The hurdles ahead for unmanned aircraft
The UK could now see unmanned flying taxis in the air as soon as 2030, according to the government (Image credit: Adobe Stock)

The UK government set out on Monday that autonomous – or ‘pilotless’ – aircraft could come sooner to our skies than first thought.

Once confined to the “realms of science-fiction”, the UK could now see unmanned flying taxis in the air as soon as 2030, according to the Department for Transport. But what does the industry think, and what challenges lie ahead?

EVA magazine this week attended the Royal Aeronautical Society’s inaugural Pilotless Summit in London, which saw key industry players and stakeholders come together to lay out an informal roadmap for the future of flight.

Indeed, the government’s announcement was the source of much discussion at the conference. Many attendees questioned the reality of the Department for Transport’s Future of Flight Action Plan.

The level of discussion raised over just how realistic the roadmap is, given the ambitious timeframe, provided an obvious indication of where the industry stands.

When one delegate asked panellists whether the industry is ready to deliver on this goal, the unanimous answer was “no”. On this, the consensus appears clear.

However, what the six-year plan for unmanned flight did highlight in the conference room was the steps the industry needs to take to get there – of which, there were many.

The first and perhaps most important point raised by Dan Newman, chief technology officer of Honeywell’s advanced air mobility business, was that autonomy is “ambiguous”.

According to Newman: “We love to use the word [autonomy], but we can’t define it so we can’t deliver it.”

Dan Newman, delivers a presentation at the Pilotless Summit

Max Scheck, a Boeing 747 pilot and advocate for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) at the European Cockpit Association, agreed: “The problem is that without these clear definitions of autonomous [aircraft], we’re not talking about the same things.”

If there is any indication of where the industry is in terms of advancing pilotless flight, this is it.

Surely, the realisation of advanced air mobility (AAM) is much further away than 2030 if the key players in this space can’t come to an agreement over what it actually is?

Newman believes the word is “getting in the way” of progress – and even goes as far as to say the industry should stop using it.

So never mind the infrastructure, regulatory or financial challenges. For now, the AAM sector’s greatest hurdle is to decide what autonomous flight is. But what of the challenges ahead?

On infrastructure, the general feeling from speakers and delegates alike was that local authorities must be involved to the same extent as central governments.

A significant barrier to building the necessary infrastructure, such as vertiports, is securing the venture capital and private investment to fund this new era for aviation – because without the funding, making pilotless flight a reality is seemingly impossible.

And airports themselves aren’t ready. Aviation consultant, Gokul Krishna Srinivasan said: “Pragmatically speaking, I don’t think airports, airport authorities or aerodrome managers are anywhere near close to being able to accept advanced air mobility vehicles to operate in their environment.

“Are airports ready to manage these operations? They’re not even close because they don’t want these systems anywhere close to their infrastructure.

“The simple reason is that a single incident, something like a hard landing by an advanced air mobility vehicle, might cause a lot of PR issues for the airport and flight delays – we’re talking millions of pounds of damage that might be cost commercially.

“It’s going to be a while before we start seeing these newer technologies being integrated with legacy airport systems.”

He added that smaller airports have a real opportunity to use their space as “playgrounds” for eVTOL experiments.

The Pilotless Summit’s first panel addresses delegates.

But where will the use cases come from to advance the sector, and how can the stakeholders who want to lead in the AAM space secure the funding for crucial infrastructure projects?

According to Minna Kreivi, an independent aviation consultant: “From an infrastructure point of view, I see business potential for smaller airports who need more business.

“This could be an opportunity for them. There are a few airports in Finland that are privately-owned and are the first ones saying they want to be the first AAM players in Finland.

“But they have the problem that there is not a viable business case – so where do they get the money?”

Without these vital case studies to demonstrate the potential of eVTOL aircraft, the hopeful OEMs will be unable to secure the venture capital – and private investment – for the sector to takeoff, panellists suggested.

Before infrastructure, though, comes the regulatory and certification element. From a funding point of view, can eVTOL manufacturers secure the investment they need before the regulatory bodies have even certified the aircraft?

James Bell, innovation strategy lead at the UK Civil Aviation Authority, said that “if there isn’t a regulatory framework that enables [the sector], it just won’t become a reality”.

This, perhaps, is the most fundamental point – because it is seems unlikely that investors would spend tens of millions of pounds investing in a new aircraft type that hasn’t been certified by regulators, and could potentially never be approved.

Schek added: “The regulatory framework is lacking [but] how do you certify these systems in accordance with the underlying philosophies that we rightfully have in aviation today? That needs to be solved.”

The conference consensus was that regulation has “catching up” to do, and is potentially miles behind the advancements in technology driving the sector forward.