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Industry Experts Debate Pilotless Planes
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By SLOBODAN LEKIC, Associated Press Writer

SINGAPORE - As you fasten your seat belt a "welcome aboard" announcement is made by a computer — because there is no captain.

Slideshow: Asian Aerospace Air Show

While plane designers dream of a high-tech future, the aerospace industry is debating whether if it will become feasible to fly passengers without pilots.

Computers already play a major role flying many present-day jetliners. They have the capability of carrying out takeoffs. And, they routinely are relied upon during long-range cruising. In good weather they often land planes — but always with a human crew ready to take over.

Industry experts on Thursday said pilot-less commercial flights are unlikely any time soon. But they acknowledge that the idea has gained greater currency after the wars in Afghanistan (news - web sites) and Iraq (news - web sites).

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, successfully undertook reconnaissance, electronic jamming and ground attacks in both conflicts.

In line with this trend, UAVs are taking center stage at a major international air exhibition for the first time. Dozens of the quirky-looking spy planes are on display at this week's Asian Aerospace show in Singapore.

This year, Asian Aerospace's flying display didn't open with the usual roar of jet fighters — but with the barely audible buzz of a robotic drone plane.

Several UAV manufacturers say their technologies could eventually replace commercial airline pilots.

Possibilities include preprogrammed flights and a single human pilot siting in from a computer screen controlling several craft from a base thousands of kilometers (miles) away.

"Of course it can be done," said Haim Kellerman, vice president of the UAV program at Israeli defense contractor Elbit Systems. "There is nothing inherently different between (manned and unmanned) aircraft in terms of aerodynamics. It is only a question of whether there is a will to do it or not."

For the military, UAVs have the obvious advantage of keeping people out of harm's way. For commercial aviation, the aircraft without pilots could slash operation costs like training and salaries.

Still, civilian plane makers have said they have no immediate plans to eliminate cockpit crews.

"It's not imaginable to have a drone airplane full of passengers," said Airbus Industries spokeswoman Barbara Kracht.

"When you have passengers there are so many factors that make a crew indispensable," she said. "There will always be two pilots on our planes."

Robert Agostino, director of flight operations of Canadian jet maker Bombardier, agreed.

"There may be a time in the future when UAV technology will have a great impact on military operations," Agostino said. "But when it comes to commercial planes, it's very different. A pilot can adapt to an unlimited number of changing circumstances."

However, U.S. plane maker Boeing has refused to rule out UAV technology in its future airliners.

"We're evaluating the UAV concept. But we don't have any plans at this time to incorporate it into our commercial aircraft," said James Wilkinson, manager of product analysis and communications marketing of Boeing.

"Following a review of the technology, if it makes sense, we probably would include it," he said.
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