Imagine being aloft at 30,000 feet without a pilot in the cockpit. Scary?
It could be the airplane of the future.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have been around for years, used by the military for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
Now, pilots at the Federal Aviation Administration's technical center in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., will test two remote-controlled unmanned aircraft with the goal of integrating pilotless airplanes into U.S. airspace.
A subsidiary of Boeing Co., Insitu Inc., on Tuesday signed a research deal with the FAA to develop safety standards and procedural rules for flying portable ScanEagle aircraft in U.S. airspace. Testing will be at the New Jersey Air National Guard's Warren Grove Range, north of Atlantic City.
The objective, in maybe 20 years, is that companies such as FedEx and United Parcel Service could transport commercial cargo on planes without a flight crew.
And, in perhaps 30 years, passengers might fly from Philadelphia to San Francisco with no human crew on board.
While it sounds far-fetched, technology already exists in modern airplanes to fly an entire flight, from takeoff to landing, by computer.
"We kind of do that today, only we have pilots up there to hit the disconnect button and fly by hand when the computer messes up," said Wilson Felder, director of the FAA center. "The computer hardly ever messes up."
UAVs are likely to be used, in the near term, for protecting borders; inspecting pipelines; monitoring forest fires and environmental hazards, such as oil spills and tornadoes; and collecting information from inside hurricanes without putting pilots and crew in danger.
"There are many applications for UAVs that people are interested in," said Insitu president and chief executive Steven Sliwa. "Right now, it's difficult to use them because we don't have a safe way to integrate them with manned airplanes."
The goal is to work with the FAA on standards and rules to fly unmanned, robotic aircraft in the same airspace as piloted planes "and not create any safety problems," Sliwa said.
The ScanEagle is 4 1/2 feet long, weighs 44 pounds, and has a wingspan of slightly more than 10 feet. It resembles a giant battery-operated model airplane, but the $100,000 aircraft can fly nonstop for 28 hours on less than two gallons of gasoline.
Deployed in 2004, the Scan Eagle has flown 320,000 combat hours in Iraq, Afghanistan, and off U.S. Navy ships.
The Navy used the plane - 1,000 have been manufactured - in April 2009 in the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips, who was held hostage by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean.
During the daytime, the onboard video technology is "very similar to a Sony camcorder," Sliwa said. "At night, it is a special high-technology infrared camera. When Navy Seals rescued Capt. Phillips, they used ScanEagle video to help make their decisions and execute the mission."
Do cargo companies, airlines, and pilots welcome sharing the sky with unmanned aircraft?
"FedEx certainly is always interested in new technology that will help us improve service to our customers," said spokesman Jim McCluskey. "Whether this would, or wouldn't, I don't know. I can't speculate on what that technology is, and how the FAA will apply it."
David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, representing the nation's airlines, said, "There are no limits to what technology will bring us. We just have to make sure that, whatever those standards are, they meet the same rigorous safety standards as manned aviation today."
Human pilots, naturally, see drawbacks. James Ray, spokesman for the US Airline Pilots Association, said, "It's hard to say where technology will go. But at least for the foreseeable future, I don't think that's a possibility."
Ray continued, "You can't troubleshoot remotely and solve problems that may occur - exterior forces such as weather, the split-second decisions that pilots have to make."
Then, there is the famous Hudson River landing last year by US Airways Group pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.
"There is no way that could ever be done remotely," Ray said. "So we feel like our job is secure. I don't think the flying public would trust an aircraft being flown by somebody in a dark control room, with his feet up, playing with a joystick."