Pilotless planes can save industry $48b: UBS

Driverless cars, move over.

The next big thing in transport might be pilotless planes, though nervous passengers will need some reassurance first.

An investment research report out earlier this month estimated the move could save the industry as much as US$35 billion (S$47.7 billion) a year in pilot, fuel, logistics and insurance costs, as computers optimise the flights, and human cockpit error risk is reduced.

The move would be a boon for avionics and communications technology providers, as well as commercial airlines and freight companies. Remotely controlled passenger and cargo planes may technically be ready for the market as early as 2025, said analysts from private bank UBS.

The projected timeline is based on technology that is already around, such as military drones and remote airport tower controls.

Asian airlines are predicted to get a profitability boost of about 45 per cent from pilotless planes, according to the analysts. Passengers could save about 3 per cent on flights, if the savings are passed on, they added.

The analysts estimated that the biggest lift would be enjoyed by Thai Airways, China Eastern and Garuda, which have relatively higher salaries or pilot numbers.

In contrast, "Korean Air, AirAsia and Air China operate more efficiently in terms of their ability to control staff costs..." they wrote.

But the report also cited passenger opposition and regulatory constraints as possible factors that could block the adoption of such technology.

A UBS survey found that fewer than one-fifth of roughly 8,000 respondents said they were likely to get on a flight without a pilot.

"The opportunity, we believe, would be dependent on the timing of the roll-out of pilotless planes and we think it is likely we would initially see cargo as the first sub-sector to adopt new related technologies," the UBS analysts wrote.

Acceptance of driverless train technology could be paving the way for similar applications elsewhere, PwC Singapore transport director Oliver Redrup told The Straits Times, although the public may still look to drivers during service disruption incidents.

He said: "To overcome passenger acceptance issues, pilotless planes could first be more easily implemented in the air freight industry, where cargo planes could be deployed around the world without any on-board staff at all.

"Logistics companies can combine these with the wider use of driverless trucks, freight convoys and digital management of supply chains to create much more efficient and faster supply chains - realising benefits for themselves (and) also consumers."

The analysts pointed to Airbus' trial of the Skyways parcel delivery solution, which could see package-carrying drones flit across the National University of Singapore campus early next year.

Autonomous aircraft could lead to annual cost savings of as much as US$600,000 for FedEx, they said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 28, 2017, with the headline 'Pilotless planes can save industry $48b: UBS'. Print Edition | Subscribe