Pilotless planes could be flying soon but public fears must be overcome, says Airbus

Hannah Boland
Christian Scherer, the chief commercial officer for Airbus - Bloomberg

Airbus has developed the ability to fly passenger jets without pilots, but overcoming regulatory concerns and public fears about the technology were holding it back from rolling them out commercially. 

Speaking at the Paris Air Show this week, Christian Scherer, the chief commercial officer for Airbus, said the technology to safely operate autonomous aircraft now exists.  He said the challenge was to build confidence in it.

"It’s a matter of interaction with the regulators, the perception in the traveling public," he told the Associated Press. "When can we introduce it in large commercial aircraft? That is a matter we are discussing with regulators and customers, but technology-wise, we don’t see a hurdle.”

Mr Scherer's comments come as the UK Government assesses how best to regulate the space. The Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, part of both the Department for Transport and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, is understood to have recently begun to focus increasingly on pilotless aircraft. 

According to the Drone Major Group, CCAV had recently been "thinking 'hang on a minute, an autonomous vehicle is an autonomous vehicle now but when is it going to take off, and how do we manage that?'"

Meanwhile the US aviation regulator the Federal Aviation Administration are also thought to be currently in the process of deciding what standards it should set, with acting chief Daniel Elwell last week saying there was a "whole new bucket of stuff to keep me awake at night". 

Airbus is not alone at looking at pilotless jets. Earlier this year Boeing's prototype autonomous air taxi completed its first pilotless test in Virginia. 

Uber also has ambitions to launch an autonomous air taxi service, and speaking at its Elevate conference last week said it would have airborne electric vehicles in the sky and available to the public by 2023. It is planning for those vehicles to be pilotless. 

However, there are signs that customers are doubtful of the technology. A study by Swiss investment bank UBS last year revealed that almost two thirds of airline passengers would be "unlikely to fly in a pilotless plane”, whilst over half would not want to fly in a plane with just one pilot. The survey revealed the number of those not willing to fly in autonomous jets had risen.