Will there be commercial flights without human pilots? – New Scientist

Many planes have automatic pilots, but they can only be used in certain circumstances. Now Airbus is testing an autopilot that can choose the nearest safe airport, land a plane and even taxi to the terminal.

Airbus is testing an autopilot that can independently land an aircraft and taxi it to the terminal in an emergency. If planes 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 certain course and altitude. Despite these limitations, the system relieved pilots. For example, they could look down longer to read their charts or instruments, without worrying about going off course.


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As time went on 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 did report that it led to a few “hard landings.”

Nowadays we even have space planes without crew. These are launched with rockets, can fly autonomously in orbit for several years and land themselves. There are also military, commercial and even toy drones that can fly without a human driver. But the regulations for the transport of 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 figure out the best airport, land the plane and even taxi to the terminal for the 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 sends out a cone of radio signals to guide an aircraft onto the runway. Because DragonFly is designed to land quickly at the nearest airfield, which may not have an ILS, it has video cameras that the onboard computer can use to successfully land the plane. It can also taxi autonomously with the same cameras. Some aircraft can also take off on autopilot, but that is not used.

Will human pilots ever disappear?

DragonFly will be a last resort rather than everyday use, says an Airbus spokesperson. 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 from Cranfield University in the UK says modern aircraft are under computer control for 95 percent of their flight time. Still, he underlines that human pilots are still vital. “The problem, of course, is that that 5 percent or less may not be a big part, but it’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 safety point of view it is unlikely that they will disappear,” he says.