Many aircraft have automatic pilots, but they can only be used in certain circumstances. Now Airbus is testing an autopilot that can select the nearest safe airport, land a plane and even taxi to the terminal.
Airbus is testing an autopilot that can autonomously land a plane and taxi it to the terminal in an emergency. If airplanes are capable of this, will we soon all be flying without a human pilot on board?
What is an autopilot?
The first autopilot appeared in 1912, but it was extremely limited. A gyroscope and altimeter mechanically connected to the controls could keep the aircraft on a specific heading and altitude. Despite these limitations, the system facilitated pilots. For example, they could look down further to read their charts or instruments without worrying about going off course.
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As time went on, the autopilots got better and better. In 1947, a modified C-54 transport aircraft flew a series of automatic test flights between destinations thousands of miles apart. It even landed on the runway, although the human pilot reported that it led to a few “hard landings”.
Today we even have unmanned space planes. These are launched by rockets, can fly autonomously in orbit for several years and land by themselves. There are also military, commercial and even toy drones that can fly without a human driver. But the rules for transporting hundreds of passengers are of course stricter.
What is the difference with modern autopilots?
Airbus’ latest system, DragonFly, is perhaps the most advanced autopilot to date. The company says it’s an emergency safety device rather than an everyday tool. If the pilots are unable to fly, DragonFly can find the best airport, land the plane and even taxi to the terminal for passengers to disembark.
Although most modern aircraft are already capable of self-landing in an emergency, they rely on the Instrument Landing System (ILS) on the ground. It emits a cone of radio signals to guide an aircraft onto the runway. Because the DragonFly is designed to land quickly at the nearest airfield that may not have an ILS, it has video cameras that the onboard computer can use to land the plane. It can also taxi autonomously with the same cameras. Some aircraft can also take off on autopilot, but this is not used.
Will human pilots ever disappear?
DragonFly will be a last resort rather than everyday use, says a spokesman for Airbus. It is certainly not the first step towards an aircraft without human pilots. We’re not trying to replace them, it’s just about improving safety.’
Aviation expert Antonios Tsourdos of Britain’s Cranfield University says modern aircraft are under computer control for 95 percent of their flight time. Still, he stresses that human pilots are still vital. “The problem, of course, is that the 5 percent or less might not be a big part, but that’s usually the hard part,” he says.
Tsourdos says it’s highly unlikely we’ll have pilotless commercial flights anytime soon. “The role of the pilots can change over the years, so that they become supervisors. I think from a security point of view it is unlikely that they will disappear,’ he says.