Someday, All Planes Will Be Drones
A robot-ready traffic system wouldn't allow planes to go missing.
By HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR.
A column here nine years ago began with a Cypriot jetliner that flew off by itself and crashed when it ran out of fuel. It ended with a discussion of why the skies were not filling up with drones.
In between was all about the failures and delays plaguing a remaking of the air-traffic-control system for the digital age. This has direct relevance for both the terrible mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the rollicking battle you've been reading about between the Federal Aviation Administration and America's truculent drone entrepreneurs.
A candelight vigil for the missing passengers of Malaysian Flight 370 in Islamabad, Pakistan. Anjum Naveed/Associated Press
Drones, as something new and different in the air, will even begin to seem a bit of a misleading emphasis. In the future, all aircraft, whether they have a pilot aboard or not, will want to be capable of autonomous flight—making their way by onboard sensors and computerized guidance. All aircraft will want to be controllable from the ground.
All aircraft will want to be part of an air-traffic-control system that knows where everybody is and where everybody is going at all times and no longer relies fundamentally on a pair of eyes looking out the window or at a screen to make sure planes don't collide.
Long before today's fascination with commercial drones, America should have been on its way to an air-traffic-control system able effortlessly to incorporate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace. Instead of controllers on the ground gazing at radars and yakking into earphones to exchange data at a rate that would shame a 1980s dial-up modem, planes would be connected to each other via broadband in the sky, using GPS data automatically to broadcast their position, speed and course to other users of the airspace.
Instead of sticking to fixed "air routes" for the convenience of busy controllers on the ground, planes would fly direct to destinations, choosing their altitude, steering around weather. Planes would fly closer together safely. Landing would be a smooth and continuous descent from altitude rather than a laborious stairstep with a controller barking instructions at each stage.
The system, known as "free flight," would be a huge saver of fuel and passenger productivity. By the late 1990s, it was also supposed to save the traffic system from absolute gridlock. Then came 9/11, which reduced demand on the system. Less noticed, so did the consolidation of America's network carriers. One corollary to crammed planes and more profitable carriers is fewer flights: In 2005, the U.S. hosted 11.3 million commercial takeoffs. Last year, it was 9.6 million.
This remarkable shrinkage has enabled the natural tendency of the FAA and Congress to procrastinate, waste billions, and become hopelessly bogged down in log rolling so that free flight, and thus drone integration in the traffic system, is further off today (at least a decade) than it was in 2005.
In the indictments of U.S. commercial drone policy you've been reading, other countries come out way ahead. Japan has been using drones for years as crop-dusters. Hollywood must film overseas if it wants (legally) to shoot a roving overhead view of an action hero's bald spot.
One reason is that other countries have exponentially less air traffic than the U.S., in which perhaps 40,000 city pairs are connected by the big hub-and-spoke carriers.
Such countries don't have large private-aviation lobbies, which resist technology upgrades and serve as "uncooperative traffic" in a free-flight scenario. But a third reason is that certain countries long ago succeeded where the U.S. has failed in commercializing their air-traffic-control systems, putting them in the hands of private or quasi-private operators able to raise capital, charge fees and invest in growth, free of meddling by congressional pork barons. You want a drone-friendly air-traffic-control system, this is the place to start. Our FAA isn't blindly anti-drone but simply marooned in a system that still needs thousands of eyeballs gazing at radar terminals and out of cockpit windshields.
Let us understand. Whether or not Amazon really wants to use drones to deliver small packages (doubtful), the digital revolution eventually will obliterate the distinction between drones and other aircraft: what we might call the drone-ification of all flight, military and commercial. Even if everyone aboard is dead due to some pressurization mishap, as happened in 2005 with Helios Flight 522 and may have happened with Malaysia Flight 370, the day is coming when no plane again will be out of contact or out of control from the ground.
Cargo planes will be unmanned. Passenger planes, once passengers realize the crew is mostly there to cause mistakes, will be fully automated even if a trained crew member is standing by to lend comfort.