However, plane makers clearly believe the problem can be cracked. Aircraft manufacturer Airbus recently released its view of the future of aviation towards 2050 and beyond, and one of the things it stressed was the benefit of planes that can fly themselves. In an extreme proposal, it suggests passenger planes might fly together in flocks, which can result in huge energy savings. They would keep in sync by constantly monitoring their position relative to one another.
While everyone seems confident that the technical challenges of such visions can be overcome, there is perhaps one more significant hurdle to overcome - persuading the general public that a plane without a pilot is safe.
On that point, Professor Cummings says the data is increasingly in favour of unmanned systems. “About three years ago UAVs became safer than general aviation, meaning that more general aviation planes are crashing than UAVs, per 100,000 flight hours,” she says. “So UAVs are actually safer than a weekend pilot, flying a small plane.”
That may not be a huge surprise. But what is perhaps more telling is that last year UAVs became safer than highly trained military fighters and bombers. “I knew that was coming, and it’s one of the reasons I jumped into this field and left commercial piloting and military piloting behind,” says Prof Cummings
Yet data may not be enough, she acknowledges. “The reason that you like a pilot in the plane is because ultimately he or she shares the same fate that you do,” she says. “So if the plane is about to go down, you feel better knowing that there is a human in the front seat doing everything that they can to save their own life.”