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Boeing will test self-flying planes

Flight controls in the cockpit of a Boeing 787 passenger aircraft during the 53rd International Paris Air Show at Le Bourget in Paris on June 20. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg News)

Airplanes can already take off, cruise and land using onboard computers, but can they fly without the human touch? That’s what the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer will find out as Boeing begins testing autonomous flying technology in cockpit simulators this summer.

“When I look at the future, I see a need for 41,000 commercial jet airplanes over the course of the next 20 years. And that means we are going to need something like 617,000 more pilots — that’s a lot of pilots,” said Mike Sinnett, Boeing’s vice president for product development, at the Paris Air Show on Monday. “One of the ways that may be solved is by having some type of autonomous behavior.”

The artificial intelligence that Boeing will test will be capable of making decisions normally made by pilots. Sinnett said that the technology could be used to reduce the number of pilots required for long-haul flights or, in some situations, allow fully autonomous flying.

Robert W. Mann Jr., an independent airline industry analyst and consultant, said that the air transport industry faces a global shortage of pilots. Rising demand for global air travel, especially in emerging markets, has outpaced the ability of airlines to bolster their staffs. For Mann, the key question is whether the market will accept the idea of autonomous planes.

“Will passengers willingly utilize a pilotless aircraft?” he asked. “I suspect that they would first go into use by cargo, since boxes don’t have a voice.”

Sinnett said the autonomous technology will be tested in aircraft sometime next year.