Think Bigger: Autonomous Aircraft and the Transformation in Aviation

 In Altimeter

Autonomous aircraft often evoke images of small quadcopter drones buzzing overhead or military systems operating in places far outside the United States.

These aircraft are essential cornerstones for the market, yet the growing applicability of autonomous technologies to large civil aircraft will soon revolutionize aviation and change the shape of our daily lives.

First examined in the Aerospace Industry Association (AIA) and Avascent’s 2018 report “Think Bigger: Large Unmanned Systems and the Next Major Shift in Aviation,” the development and usage of civil autonomous aircraft has rapidly grown in recent years, as evidenced by the arrival of dozens of new entrants that are vying to disrupt cargo, industrial, and passenger air transportation.


What Does the Future of Autonomous Aircraft Look Like?

Building on this early momentum, the market is primed for breakthrough growth and is further explored in AIA and Avascent’s newly-released follow-up report, “Continuing to Think Bigger: Autonomous Aircraft and the Transformation in Aviation.”

As called out in this new report, the market is projected to result in nearly $325 billion in spending from 2022 through 2040. Nearly 100,000 jobs are projected to exist in 2040 as a direct result.

The market’s continued maturation – reinforced by strong underlying macro trends such as booming e-commerce demand and new urban mobility patterns – points to the need for government and industry stakeholders to consolidate gains of the recent past and align behind a policy and regulatory map for autonomous aircraft.

Building such an outlook will ensure that long-term goals are clearly articulated and the paths to achieve them are well understood by all. This understanding will enable government and industry to most appropriately channel aircraft and infrastructure investments.

Co-authors Jay Carmel and Josh Pavluk recently spoke with Axios about the report, as well as prospects for spending growth and expansion of jobs. The article highlights growth across use cases, beginning with industrial and cargo before expanding to passenger aircraft.

Over time, as the article notes, these aircraft will become further automated, and pilots will increasingly delegate critical decisions.

2022 SXSW Panel Discussion on Autonomous Aircraft

Coinciding with the release of the report, Pavluk participated in an AIA-organized panel discussion at SXSW in Austin. As part of SXSW’s transportation track, the panel – “Beyond Package Delivery: Large Unmanned Aircraft” – featured participants from AIA, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, and Honeywell Aerospace.

Panelists discussed several salient topics, beginning with a conversation about how to define autonomy given the various public perceptions around the term.

Building on this foundation, the group conversed about ways in which the capability will progress from the automation of today to the fully autonomous aircraft of tomorrow.


  • Perform relatively mundane functions independent of humans


  • Always on aircraft to perform critical functions and make important decisions


  • Perform relatively mundane functions independent of humans


  • Always on aircraft to perform critical functions and make important decisions


  • Can operate safely without a data link
  • Independently make critical decisions


  • Remotely operate an aircraft
  • Remotely manage multiple aircraft
  • Remain on aircraft, depending on use case

With substantial SXSW audience participation and Q&A engagement, the panel discussion underscored the importance of broader public awareness and trust to market growth.

The SXSW audience actively engaged the panel about a diverse range of topics from environmental and safety considerations to expansion opportunities in the global marketplace.

For additional detail into this emerging opportunity space and the recommended policy actions that can ensure continued progress, read AIA and Avascent’s latest report here.

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