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Artificial intelligence

AI is set to change the aerospace industry—but won’t be flying planes anytime soon

Boeing is investing in artificial intelligence and products that will help manage our overcrowded skies and take the pressure off human pilots.
September 13, 2018
Jake Belcher

When you’re a 102-year-old aerospace company, there’s always pressure to keep up with the crowd. For Boeing, that means investing in the future of the industry, and for the firm’s CTO, Greg Hyslop, that means artificial intelligence.

The role of AI for now is to help pilots deal with complexity, Hyslop explained during his talk at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference today. There is a global upcoming pilot shortage, and AI will help pilots, especially those with less experience, avoid danger or safely get out of it. “That’s where we’ll see the convergence with AI,” he said.

For Hyslop, the biggest challenge currently facing the aerospace industry is how to maintain high levels of safety when we have 10 million planes in the air rather than a few thousand.

“How do we maintain the existing levels of safety with an AI-based system in the cockpit? How do you show and certify that your systems are safe to point where the flying public will say ‘Yes, I trust that’? Those are very difficult problems to solve,” he said. 

In order to tackle these problems, Boeing has set up two offshoots: Boeing Horizon X and Boeing Next. Boeing X is investing in startups and setting up links with new partners, while Boeing Next focuses on future product development.

The firm is also setting up the Aerospace and Autonomy Center at MIT. It will focus on developing new technologies to support Boeing Next programs and is set to open at the end of 2020.

“We use AI in air travel already, but it’s limited,” he said. “But think again what could we do with more sensors on the airplane. Could we do a take-off in an environment where weather conditions mean a pilot wouldn’t be able to? With sensors, with AI, you could.” 

Growing urbanization across the world is putting increasing pressure on infrastructure. It’s a demand that roads and cars alone cannot meet. Might the answer be to take to the skies?

Hyslop is skeptical about much-hyped flying cars, but he says that the “societal pressures are real.” “When we had expanded our office in Bangalore, we had a government official half-seriously, half-jokingly say, ‘It’d be great if you could invent a flying rickshaw,’” he said.

And while artificial intelligence will be playing an increasing role in the industry, that doesn’t mean AI will be flying our planes anytime soon.

“For passenger travel, we don’t see it as realistic in the near term,” Hyslop said. “However, for cargo travel, you could see autonomous aircraft before too long.”

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