The rapid expansion of drone technology has many applications — but not all of them particularly welcome, as privacy activists are discovering. Here’s another that might have even more concerned about the future of pilotless aviation.  According to CBS, reporting from an industry source, airlines are investigating the idea of putting co-pilots on the ground rather than in the cockpit, using UAV technology to help fly commercial aircraft:

On Friday, a respected aviation blog called“Operationally Speaking” said research is underway. Boeing and a number of big European manufacturers are reportedly interested.

It would work like this: a co-pilot would be stationed on the ground. That co-pilot would essentially act like the pilot of an unmanned drone. They would be able to take “remote control” of the flight if needed.

CBS asked legendary pilot Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger to offer his thoughts on single-pilot commercial flights.  His reaction came in a single word — “ludicrous”:

“What we’ve learned in aviation is how to take individuals and help them create a very effective team so that they can handle the unexpected and solve whatever problem that may come and that just can’t be done remotely,” he said. “That has to be done in the cockpit with both people experiencing the same situation, feeling the same vibrations, smelling the same electrical odors or whatever is going on, sometimes wordlessly, because the workload can be so high, you sometimes can’t have a conversation with someone on the ground.”

Sullenberger, famous for his “Miracle on the Hudson” landing, said he wouldn’t have had a successful landing if his co-pilot Jeff Skiles had not been at his side while he was trying to land US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River. Sullenberger said, “If Jeff Skiles had been on the ground … there’s absolutely no way. It could not have been.” …

“Technology can only do what has been foreseen and for which it has been programmed and it’s the human element working in this human and technology system that we have in our cockpit that can innovate, can take what we do know and apply it in a new way to solve in 208 seconds, in our case, a problem that we had never seen before.”

That’s not to say that the technology has no upside.  Terrorists on 9/11 were able to successfully seize the cockpits of planes for which they only had a minimum of training and turn them into guided missiles. Only the counterattack from the heroes of United 93 foiled the fourth plane from carrying out an attack on the capital.  If we had that kind of full remote-control capability, we may have been able to stop one or more of those attacks, and perhaps the heroes of United 93 would not have needed to make that counterattack at all.

If the UAV technology could be adapted for commercial flights, that would seem to be its best use — ensuring that any hijackers who manage to get that far end up with no control of the aircraft anyway.  For that, though, you’d only need a few pilots on the ground ready to take control in an emergency rather than one for every flight in the air, and you’d also need to make security so robust that hijackers couldn’t do the same thing from the ground themselves.  We should keep developing the technology but reconsider the application.