There's a long but not very illuminating cover article in Aviation Week's Business and Commercial Aviation this month on how UAVs will change civil aviation.
Best bit: "At the Quad-A [Army Aviation Association of America] meeting [in mid-April] in Texas, Sikorsky announced a '2-1-0' pilot concept, where you could have a choice of two, one or no pilots aboard their helicopters," he said. That "public statement" is validating what many UAV insiders have known for some time, "that optionally piloted aircraft can fulfill these functions."
For example, Vos suggested, air taxi operators could potentially replace a copilot with automation and gain an extra fare seat — "a significant gain, a 33-percent seat-mile improvement in that you would go from three to four passengers in a five-seat airplane. In simplistic terms, you have within a domain of interest the ability to know every other airplane and what it is doing, and together with the proactive ATM and reactive anti-collision technology, it becomes safe to operate with automation."
I was amused by this paragraph
"In researching this report, we heard of studies by major cargo airlines involving optionally piloted freighters, supposedly crewed on transoceanic flights by a single pilot, or none at all. We queried Federal Express on the subject and received a friendly but dismissive response from corporate spokesman Jim McCluskey, who said, "I'm in touch with our research people all the time, and I've never heard anything like that." Nevertheless, he said, he'd run it up the executive chain of command to see what came back. In a follow-up conversation a few days later, his tone had changed somewhat. "I have an official statement from the company concerning alleged studies of minimally piloted or pilotless air freighters," he said. "'FedEx is always interested in new technology that will help us improve service to our customers, but we do not disclose the nature of our research.'"
Two weeks ago I interviewed FedEx CEO Fred Smith on stage in New York at the Wired Disruptive Business conference. We talked a lot about UAVs. He's been looking at them closely for years (this is no secret, so I don't know why Aviation Week didn't know about it). Last year we posted here on his thoughts about why UAVs, especially flying wings that aren't compromised for human safety and comfort, would be more efficient for FedEx, and at the conference this month he talked about the possibility of a FedEx someday flying formations of aircraft, like a flock of birds, with only the leading one being manned.
Is a flock of robotic cargo aircraft led by a single pilot a radical idea? Not really, he said. Think of it like a train: the lead car is manned, and all the others are unmanned. They're connected mechanically, and the aircraft would be connected electronically, but it's basically the same idea. It's simply the most efficient way to move cargo.