Boeing’s Future of Flight Doesn’t Include Pilots

16.02.2018 • United Kingdom

Andrew Lockley – Exponential Investor (United Kingdom) –

What do you think the world record for a non-stop endurance flight is?

Go on, guess.

When my friend asked me the same question over the weekend, I thought it would be around three or four days. I was way off.

It’s 64 days, 22 hours and 19 minutes.

To be fair, there were two people on the flight, Robert Timm and John Cook, so one could sleep while the other flew. But it is still pretty amazing, isn’t it?

What’s even more amazing is this record was set in 1958, and it still stands to this day.

The flight was a charity effort for the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. I would hope they raised a fair bit.

They managed to stay up for so long by matching speeds with a chase truck when they needed food or fuel. They then hoisted supplies up with a rope and bucket, and pumped fuel into the plane’s reserve tank.

Here’s a photo from that legendary flight:

They only decided to end the flight when the plane’s engine became so overworked it could barely climb any more after dropping to get supplies.

How did the pilots find the experience? After the flight, Cook said: “Next time I feel in the mood to fly endurance, I’m going to lock myself in our garbage can with the vacuum cleaner running. That is until my psychiatrist opens up for business in the morning.”

Their plane is now on display in the passenger terminal at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Look out for it if you ever visit.

If you want to know more on the story, there’s a short video here.

How safe is aircraft travel, really?

With that incredible record in mind, I was reminded of another surprising statistic I read in a psychology book a few years ago.

I couldn’t find the book today, so I decided to work out the numbers for myself from widely available statistics on air travel.

So, for my second question:

If you took a flight every single day, how many days do you think it would take before you had a 1% chance of dying in an air accident?

The answer is 45 years, 7 months and 17 days.

You would have to fly every day for over 45 years to have just a 1% chance of dying in an air crash.

For the period between 2002 and 2011 there are only 0.6 deaths per million flights. And since then, those numbers have gone down. 2017 was the safest year on record.

The main reason for those deaths was pilot error, with accounts for 33% to 60% of all accidents.

So, the next logical step to making flights safer is to… remove the pilot?

Pilotless planes are coming sooner than you think

We have had “autopilot” for years. But we still have pilots. I guess that knowing a pilot is up there makes people feel safer.

It really shouldn’t, given the stats, but our brains don’t work on logic, they work on feelings.

“The intellect may seem at times to lead the will, but only as a guide leads his master. The will is the strong, blind man who carries on his shoulders the lame man who can see,” as Arthur Schopenhauer said.

Still, autopilot isn’t really designed to take care of entire flights. At least it wasn’t until recently. But all that is now changing.

As reported by Reuters last June:

The world’s biggest aircraft maker [Boeing] says the growing global demand for air travel and the need for more pilots is driving the development of the self-flying technology. 

“When I look at the future I see a need for you know 41,000 commercial jet airplanes over the course of the next 20 years. And that means we’re going to need something like six hundred and seventeen thousand more pilots. That’s a lot of pilots.

“So one of the ways that may be solved is by having some type of autonomous behaviour and that could be anything from taking instead of five pilots on a long haul flight down to three or two, taking two pilots down to one in a freight situation, or in some cases going from one to none,” said Mike Sinnett, vice president of product development at Boeing. 

Planes can already take off, cruise and land using their onboard flight computers. 

The new technology, which Boeing hopes to test in a cockpit simulator this summer, would allow artificial intelligence to make some of the decisions normally made by pilots. 

If all goes well, Sinnet says the technology could be tested on a real aircraft sometime next year.

Given that article was written last year, “sometime next year” now means sometime this year.

And, eager not to be left behind, Boeing’s main rival Airbus has upped the stakes in the pilotless planes business.

Why get an Uber, when you can fly instead?

Airbus sees small, electric-powered, pilotless planes taking over from taxis in the future.

And not the far future. We’re talking by 2020. Oh, and it’ll cost you no more than a regular taxi, too.

As HuffPost reported:

The Vahana is a small, lightweight self-flying aircraft that uses eight electrically-powered engines to propel passengers from A to B.

It’ll have a range of around 62-miles and just like taxis today, it’ll be summoned using a smartphone app.

Airbus, just like Uber, wants Vahana to eventually replace land-based taxi services by offering something that’s quicker, more convenient and a lot faster.

If that wasn’t enough incentive, Airbus is hoping to price journeys in the Vahana at around £1-2 per mile, making it as expensive as normal taxis.

By using a revolutionary electric motor instead of a conventional combustion engine the Vahana doesn’t produce any harmful emissions.

Electric has additional benefits including fast-charging, easy maintenance and reduced running costs because you’re not paying current fuel prices.

What’s potentially even more astonishing is that Airbus (and Uber for that matter) both believe we’ll actually be able to ride one of these as a customer by 2020.

And it seems Airbus is right on schedule. The Vahana (which I misread for Valhalla, which would not be the best name for an aircraft…) had its first successful test flight on 31 January.

Here’s a photo:

Source: Airbus

The possibilities for a taxi like this are endless. Imagine the amazing places you’d be able to visit on an adventure holiday with one of these on hand.

Of course, I suppose by the same token, hundreds of these things flying around in the sky would then round the view.

All this innovation begs the question, will proper, big commercial airliners ever be powered by electricity?

Electric passenger jets are already in testing

The answer is a definite yes.

The E-fan X is a hybrid-electric plane developed jointly by Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens.

It aims to be ready by 2020.

Here’s what The Guardian had to say about it in December:

Passenger jets are poised for an electric makeover that could fundamentally change the economics and environmental outlook of the aviation industry.

Up until now the fact that the necessary batteries weigh two tonnes each has limited the switch from fossil fuels to a totally electric-powered future.

However, last month a consortium comprising Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens said they had found a way to use hybrid electric jet engines to conquer gravity. They are converting a regional jet into a demonstration plane, called the E-Fan X, which will be ready by 2020.

And here’s a fun diagram of how it will all work:

Source: Airbus

How can you invest in this mammoth change to the airline industry?

Given all the above, we can see it’s not just cars and trucks that are going electric and driverless. Planes are getting in on the act, too.

What we are seeing now, is a huge shift out of one technology – combustion engines – and into another – electric.

The change, as things like this usually do, will happen much faster than most people realise. According to the industry itself, we’re less than two years away.

So, given what we know, what is the best way to invest and make money from this sea change?

That’s where Eoin Treacy comes in. In this month’s Issue of Frontier Tech Investor he has identified one small firm that will massively benefit from the coming change.

In his own words:

This brings me back to my “secret suppliers” idea. I’ve spoken about this before, mostly in relation to our lithium and rare earth plays

The concept is simple. When we see a new technology taking off, growing globally and being developed by multiple businesses, sometimes the smart thing to do is back a supplier. Find the scarce resources needed to produce the technology and invest in the firms that provide them. It’s a simple strategy, but one that’s done well for us so far.

And the next secret supplier he’s found has even more potential than the last ones. He believes this company could go up by as much as 733% in the next three years.

Don’t just read about these huge advances. Give yourself the chance to make money from them too.

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

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