Most pilots flying today have access to the aircraft parachute, which allows them to eject and float to the ground in the case of plane trouble. But if the pilot is incapacitated and can’t activate the parachute manually, he’s in a whole other kind of trouble. To remedy this problem, a firm called Diamond Aircraft has created an autonomous piloting system that can identify situations of emergency and land planes safely at the nearest airport. Because Diamond specializes in one-seater and two-seater planes, it doesn’t have to worry about passenger safety – in these birds, the pilot is the passenger.
Engine failure, plane damage, and flight control issues are all examples of aircraft problems that a parachute can fix, but physical issues –ones that would prevent the pilot from yanking the lever to launch the parachute– are what Diamond Aircraft’s autopilot system is designed to protect against. The innovative new system is designed to kick into gear whenever a pilot suffers a medical emergency or passes out.
To make this happen, Diamond Aircraft seems to have taken cues from self-driving cars, but the company’s autopilot system is also inspired by existing airplane technology. For example, some airplanes are capable of detecting hypoxia (incapacitation due to lack of oxygen to the brain) and autonomously navigating to lower altitudes in order to revive pilots. Diamond has essentially built upon this kind of technolgy, but also taken a step further to design an autopilot system that can actually land the plane autonomously.
The plane’s onboard software can detect a problem in the cockpit based on standard procedures, so if a pilot doesn’t take the necessary steps to initiate the airplane’s descent and landing sequence, the system solicits a response. If the pilot doesn’t respond within a certain time, the autopilot takes over control of the plane in order to fly it to the closest airport and safely land the plane. The navigation system can even make assessments about airports that are close by to determine which one will be able to provide staff assistance for the pilot.
The Diamond Aircraft system has already successfully landed a plane without assistance in a company field test, and by next year the system will be available in the firm’s own planes, according to CEO Christian Dries. Implementing the autopilot system is expected to tack on an added 10% of the total aircraft cost, but the company expects customers dropping millions to be willing to splurge for an extra $80,000 to $100,000 on a safety precaution.