Opinion: Will 2030 Be The Year Uncrewed Flight Takes Off?

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The Adoption Of Commercial Flight

In 1929, only 6,000 people traveled by airplane in the U.S.—a mere four years later, that number multiplied to 450,000 before growing to 1.2 million in 1938. Early airline flights were loud, uncomfortable, and often scary. Despite their beginnings, they rose to extreme popularity in a handful of decades due to the technology’s superiority over car and rail speeds. (Smithsonian)

100 years later, the next phase of innovation in air travel is quickly emerging—autonomous flight. From advanced air mobility eVTOLs to modified airliner technologies, public and private partnerships are rushing to build and promote the commercial air travel of the future. Beyond the technical challenges of producing these technologies, barriers in infrastructure and regulatory approvals, one of the greatest challenges will be gaining the public’s trust in flying without a pilot. 

Diffusion Of Innovations

Everett Roger’s theory of Diffusion of Innovations is a widely accepted theory used to predict consumer acceptance of new technologies or products, such as autonomous flight. Consumers fall into five progressive categories in their willingness to try new products or technologies: Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority and Laggards. 

Innovators are the highest risk-takers when it comes to new ideas and are much more open to new experiences and the risk of technology failure than other categories. They represent the first 2.5% of consumers. The Early Adopter is the category that can propel new ideas to mass societal adoption. These were the people who bought the first generation of Apple iPhones, for example. Traction with the early adopters isn’t a guarantee of success, but it is the precursor to adoption by Early and Late Majority consumers, or mass-market adoption. For example, the iPhone is so ubiquitous that they are now everywhere. 

Current Public Sentiment

Identifying the early adopters is a key indicator of the viability of commercial autonomous flight. Surveys conducted over the years seem to indicate an increasing willingness to fly on uncrewed aircraft. In the early 2000s, researchers found around 10% of respondents would be willing to fly in uncrewed aircraft, while surveys taken between 2015 to 2019 increased that willingness to an average of around 30%. Extrapolating this data into the future seems to show that by around 2030, early adopters will be willing to give flights without a pilot on board a try.

The rise of driverless cars may also influence the public’s willingness to fly without a pilot. A Pew Research survey conducted in 2017 showed that 56% of respondents would not ride in a driverless car if given the chance, citing worries over safety and the relinquishing of control. However, automated trains and subways have been common for decades. Perhaps train and air travelers, who never had ‘control’ of the vehicle in the first place, will be more accepting of removing the driver if the technology is demonstrated to be safe.

Billions of dollars are pouring into the eVTOL and advanced air mobility industries, and companies are banking on an uncrewed and electric flight boom in the near future. According to the Vertical Flight Society, the eVTOL space saw over $4.5 billion in investments in the last decade. In 2021 alone, more than $6 billion in global investments were made in this industry. The U.S. Navy and Boeing recently completed their first aerial refueling with the carrier-based, unmanned MQ-25 Stingray. 

For unmanned passenger flight to be sustainable and commercially viable, it must be widely accepted. Even then, public opinion is fragile.

Airships never gained commercial viability, in part, due to the Hindenburg crash. High-profile crashes or shifts in public opinion could set back unmanned flight for years. Nonetheless, to assume autonomous air transportation will never become mainstream is improvident, and it may be common within the next 20 years.

A financial advisor to an investor in Henry Ford’s motor company once said, “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.”

With the potential advancements in safety and efficiency, uncrewed flight will very likely be a major part of air travel over the next century. 

Jessie Naor is president of GrandView Aviation. She serves as chairman of the National Air Transportation Association’s Part 135 Committee and is vice chairman of the Air Charter Safety Foundation board of governors. 


There are two distinct markets mentioned in this comment - eVTOL is in a controlled and limited space, like unmanned trains on short, limited tracks. Unmanned passenger flight in controlled airspace but large areas is more like driverless vehicles on roads with obscured markings (think snow, heavy rain, fog) and multiple variables requiring human oversight.

Cockpit automation backed up by a ground based pilot should be the next step. That would allow the reduction of long haul pilot complements and provide a period for cockpit and ground support improvements. For example how many cockpits can a second pilot on the ground support? Do we have any studies on that?
There is no longer any "if"; the only question is "when".