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Automated pilot-free aircraft could save billions and cut air fares, research suggests

Pilotless aircraft could save the aviation industry billions of pounds every year and cut fares to passengers, according to new research.

The analysis by investment bank UBS found that the automated technology could save £27bn annually, while systems capable of flying remote-controlled planes that can carry both people and cargo could appear by 2025.

Almost three-quarters of the economic benefit would be in airlines reducing the cost of employing pilots, the study found.

Safety would also be boosted as the potential for pilot error or illness would be removed, the report said. In the US, passengers could benefit by air fares being cut by as much as 11 per cent, UBS stated.

However, a poll of 1,602 UK consumers found that more than half (53 per cent) said they are unlikely to travel on such an aircraft.

A wider survey - involving respondents in the US, France, Germany and Australia - found that this figure dropped to 41 per cent and 40 per cent for those aged 18-24 and 25-34 respectively.

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary said in 2010 he would seek permission to only use one pilot per flight, claiming the second is unnecessary and only there to “make sure the first fella doesn’t fall asleep and knock over one of the computer controls”.

UBS predicted that the cargo industry could be the first to use flights without a pilot. Its report said: “Unlike passengers, cargo is not concerned with the status of its pilots (human or autonomous). For this reason, pilotless cargo aircraft may happen more swiftly than for passengers.”

In December, a self-piloting aircraft was tested in Scotland as part of a project aiming to assess how autonomous air vehicles could be integrated into UK airspace. 

The Jestream 31 aircraft by BAE Systems flew itself from the firm’s base in Warton, Lancashire, to Inverness.

Although two pilots were aboard for the duration of the flights, they only handled the plane during take-off and landing. The robotic aircraft was capable of taking charge of the flight for the remainder of the 480km journey.

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