WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Everyone tells us aircraft can fly by themselves, now they really can, and this is just the first step of that transition.
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We’ve all heard and read about the arrival of autonomous cars, cargo ships, semi-trucks, and even sky taxi’s, so it should come as much of a surprise that a while ago I wrote about Airbus and Boeing’s plans to develop the world’s first fully autonomous commercial aircraft. Now, finally, after what seems like a long period of waiting, the new era is dawning after Airbus confirmed an autonomous aircraft took off automatically at Toulouse-Blagnac airport in France last December.
The European aerospace company conducted a series of successful tests on autopilot with two pilots on standby, and according to the company the A350-1000 “achieved eight automatic takeoffs over a period of four and a half hours.”
“While completing alignment on the runway, waiting for clearance from air traffic control, we engaged the autopilot,” said Airbus test pilot Captain Yann Beaufils in a statement. “We moved the throttle levers to the takeoff setting and we monitored the aircraft. It started to move and accelerate automatically maintaining the runway center line, at the exact rotation speed as entered in the system. The nose of the aircraft began to lift up automatically to take the expected takeoff pitch value and a few seconds later we were airborne.”
An aircraft that can take off by itself thanks to technology alone? Our #ATTOL demonstrator project recently proved just that! Learn how autonomy helped to make it happen: https://t.co/Ij5o15Ybeo pic.twitter.com/WSwCCXPxJC
— Airbus (@Airbus) January 16, 2020
In a video released by Airbus via Twitter, one of the pilots is seen with his hands away from the controls as the A350-1000 successfully takes off.
The feat was achieved using new image recognition technology that’s installed directly on the aircraft, rather than an Instrument Landing System (ILS), which sends radio waves up from the runway, providing pilots with vertical and horizontal guidance.
Airbus says it also plans to trial automatic vision-based taxi and landing sequences later this year.
In 2019, a survey of 22,000 people by US software firm Ansys indicated that 70% of travelers would be prepared to fly in fully autonomous aircraft, and in fact, the notion has often been cited as a solution for pilot shortages, like the massive ones Ryan air in Europe suffered with last year, as well as a way to cut costs.
At present, commercial flights already land with the assistance of on-board computers, with pilots manually flying the aircraft for just a few minutes on average. However, many have raised concerns about the safety of pilotless planes, particularly after the two Boeing 737 MAX jet crashes of 2019 which put Boeing’s own plans on hold, which have been linked to a software issue.
“This is not a matter of technology – it’s a matter of interaction with the regulators, the perception in the traveling public,” Christian Scherer, chief commercial officer for Airbus, told the Associated Press last June when questioned about the possibility of pilotless planes.
He added that the Boeing disasters “highlighted and underlined the need for absolute, uncompromising safety in this industry, whether from Airbus, Boeing or any other plane.” And today it seems Airbus’ position on the subject remains the same.
Despite the success of its test flights and subsequent plans for future tests, they say their mission isn’t to “move ahead with autonomy as a target in itself.”
“While analysing the potential of such technologies to help improve flight operations and overall aircraft performance, pilots will stay at the heart of operations,” said the company in a statement before adding, “Autonomous technologies are paramount to supporting pilots, enabling them to focus less on aircraft operation and more on strategic decision-making and mission management.”
Current air traffic laws in much of the world require “four-eye-rule” in the cockpit. This means two pilots must be present at all times. If one requires a break, the other must be ready to step in and take their place, and even with this recent development it’s highly likely that it will be 2025 at least before we start seeing the first autonomous flights.