Consulting Firm McKinsey & Co published their analysis on the transition from piloted to pilotless aerial mobility aircraft on June 2nd, outlining a proposed four phase progression from the current status quo of completely piloted aircraft to completely autonomous aerial mobility operations. The analysis, compiled by Uri Pelli and Partner Robin Riedel, asserted that the development will mature through these stages:
- No automation or human assistance (current capabilities, where computer systems may assist human pilots by reducing workload and providing safety protections)
- partial and conditional automation, in which pilots provide some control from the ground but onboard automation systems control the majority of activities
- high automation with remote supervised vehicles (one supervisor on the ground monitoring multiple aircraft)
- full automation
It was noted that, while these stages appear discrete, they could overlap, or even blend together, as additional developments occur and the integration of piloted/augmented piloted operations of aerial mobility aircraft is more fully developed.
Additionally, the article paired these four development stages with four major headwinds: the challenges of obtaining the pilot population, training them, and then implementing them at scale, with the knowledge that in a certain number of years, by design, they’ll be rendered obsolete.
The first challenge was the sheer cost of pilots. Given realistic assumptions of operating cost for UAM aircraft, adding a pilot could almost double the cost of any given flight.
Secondly, training and pilot sourcing are difficult. The aviation industry was in a massive pilot shortage prior to COVID-19, and McKinsey’s estimates state that once the eventually return to commercial air traffic operations has reached steady state, “suggests the [aerial mobility] industry could require about 60,000 pilots by 2028, roughly 17 percent of the total number of commercial pilots in 2018”. Almost 20% of the pilot workforce, on top of the existing talent pool, is a very large increase in demand across any industry. However, pilots are also an opportunity to leverage experience gained in providing a comfortable atmosphere for commercial air travel; they would serve as ambassadors for the aerial mobility industry through their interactions with customers. In fact, McKinsey’s article leads directly into the hurdle of a completely new customer experience – one that pilots have the ability to help curate to both reassure passengers and allow them to enjoy the convenience and benefits of commercialized aerial mobility transportation.
Last, and the most commonly cited hurdle, is the aircraft design paradigm. While provisions for manual operation and piloting of aerial mobility vehicles will be required for earlier models, at what cost is either retrofitting these aircraft when pilots are no longer required, or operating them with a spare pilots seat, worth when compared to clean sheet designs and integrations that never intended for a pilot to be in the loop? The challenging reality of certification for UAM aircraft at present means that designs must include pilot provisions now, and likely in the future those provisions may be partially deactivated and the pilot’s seat “converted” to a passenger seat to realize the benefit of another revenue generating station onboard. But then, what to do with pilots? The value proposition moving forward is equally as important for pilots in search of a long lasting career. Transitions to remote operations, or fixed wing aircraft piloting, might need to be flowed out to demonstrate the long term benefits of a career that may only involve 10 years of piloting UAM aircraft, per se.
Why it’s important: Due to the autonomous intent of the aerial mobility industry, the interim flight operations solution (pilots required) can be overlooked easily. McKinsey has identified a few of the key challenges for sourcing the talent required to bridge this gap in public acceptance and certification (the technology gap is virtually non-existent for flight path guidance at present). Additionally, once the talent pool of pilots is obtained, there are secondary benefits to having knowledgeable and professional pilots who may be able to serve as ambassadors to aerial mobility.
Source // McKinsey & Co. Article