Aviation made easy

This month’s issue reminds me how difficult it is to prognosticate wisely about the future of aviation. Assessing whether an idea is technically feasible is probably the easy part, but even then, emotion can temporarily cloud one’s judgment. Two years after the famous first flight, Wilbur Wright reportedly confessed that in 1901 he told Orville that “man would not fly for 50 years.”

Technologists pride themselves on following data and reason, and more times than not, that culture prevails. Wilbur and Orville did not give up.

Far trickier is to predict or motivate a specific consumer behavior, especially when safety and dollars are involved.

Will transportation consumers someday accept a fully automated aircraft without a human pilot aboard? The answer won’t “depend on the regulators, it’s going to depend on public perception,” says air safety advocate Mary Schiavo in this month’s Q & A.

Safety will be part of that perception, but it’s not the whole story. Richard Thaler, the 2017 winner of the Nobel Prize in economic sciences, has long said that if you want to motivate someone to act, you need to “make it easy” to do so. We’ve probably all seen firsthand what he means. Some years ago, when my beat was military intelligence, an officer at the annual Geospatial Intelligence symposium told a roomful of technologists that their computers and software often sat in unopened boxes. Troops didn’t have time to figure them out. They preferred their intuitively designed smartphones.

One can see that kind of intuitive ease-of-use in the small drone market. As our cover story points out, not that long ago, the thought of 1.1 million small drones in the hands of consumers sparked nothing but fear in the air travel industry. What if a drone got away from its operator and was sucked in by an airliner’s engine? Safety remains a valid concern, but it’s no longer the whole story. Today, drones have safety features and an ease of use that make them attractive for professionals who need to inspect runways or passenger jets in their hangars.

Drone designers have made it easier for hobbyists and professionals alike. That’s a good lesson for nearly any field.

Aviation made easy