Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Flying blind(ly) into the future

By Gene Rochlin

The European airliner manufacturer, Airbus Industrie, recently took out a patent for an airliner design without the usual cockpit up front. Instead, the nose of the airplane would be more streamlined, to reduce air resistance, and the windows removed to save weight. According to the company, this would result in significant fuel savings. The flight crew would be sited deep inside the belly of the fuselage, their visual input confined to video panels, to go with the all-electronic flight controls. And, of course, everything would be multiply redundant. And what if the electronics failed? Several tech bloggers have already pointed out that the present generation of airliners are all fly-by-wire, flown by pilots who have never flown that plane “by hand”, and who could not do so in any case, since there are no manual controls.

Furthermore, building on the example of remote-controlled drones, why have the pilots, or the drivers, in the vehicles at all? With a little more redundancy introduced into satellite communications, there would be little to choose in reliability between remote signals traveling a few meters by wire and many kilometers by transmission. And issues of operator fatigue, housing and other support at destinations, and disruptions to family life would be far more easily dealt with. And the pool of potential pilots would be greatly expanded.

If this seems strange, it is worth asking why Airbus would bother to patent the idea at all, if not to anticipate a possible future development and stake out its legal position in advance? One can see in this clever idea yet another guide to our electronically-determined future. Why not follow the Airbus example, and put streamlined noses on the trucks, with the drivers sitting fully inside and navigating by transmitted visual imagery of their surrounding using electronic drive-by-wire? Stranger ideas than this are being followed by transportation research at this very moment.

Strangely enough, the passenger windows along the side of the plane are retained in the patent drawings, even though several of the tech bloggers point out that removing those windows would reduce weight further as well as strengthening the fuselage. There is, after all, very little to see out the windows during most flights, and putting in video screens instead would allow individual passengers to view takeoffs and landings at will without disturbing others. What a costly miss by Airbus. One-upping them, the Center for Process Innovation in the U.K. followed the Airbus argument, and has suggested that the windows be replaced by OLED screens, showing images from externally mounted cameras. Or be blanked out. Possibly, they could also show whatever the outboard passenger chose .. although that could cause some difficulties with seatmates.

First (or business) class passengers could be spared this conflict by giving them interactive eyewear. This would even be an improvement for them – passengers on the now-extinct SST never did have much of a view, despite their premium air fares, out of those little round windows. Apparently, we have seen the future, and it is onscreen.