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Look, no hands! Airbus nails autonomous takeoff in move toward pilotless jets

Maybe you’re cool with the idea of taking a trip in a driverless car. But how about flying in a pilotless plane?

Airbus believes highly autonomous passenger jets will one day be a thing, with the European aerospace giant already heading in that direction.

In fact, this week Airbus revealed that it recently achieved the first fully automatic vision-based takeoff using a test aircraft at Toulouse-Blagnac airport in France.

Just like most autonomous-car tests, the aircraft had a couple of trained pilots at the controls just in case something went awry during the eight takeoffs that took place across a single day last month.

“The aircraft performed as expected during these milestone tests,” Airbus test pilot captain Yann Beaufils said in a report on the aircraft maker’s website.

Describing the initial test, the pilot said: “While completing alignment on the runway, waiting for clearance from air traffic control, we engaged the auto-pilot. We moved the throttle levers to the takeoff setting and we monitored the aircraft.  It started to move and accelerate automatically maintaining the runway centerline, 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.”

The takeoff was enabled by image-recognition technology installed directly on the aircraft. Looking ahead, the plane maker is aiming to test automatic vision-based taxi and landing sequences by the middle of 2020.

Airbus says its overriding aim is not to build a pilotless plane, “but instead to explore autonomous technologies alongside other innovations in areas such as materials, electrification, and connectivity.”

In other words, in a similar way to how we’re seeing autonomous technology gradually added to cars, any move toward full autonomy with airplanes is going to take a very long time to happen.

While many airplanes are already able to fly themselves for the most part, extra autonomy could help airlines to tackle the aviation industry’s growing pilot shortage as aircraft that currently use two pilots could operate with just a single “safety driver,” though regulators — and indeed passengers — may take some persuading.

Rival plane maker Boeing has also said it believes in “self-piloted aircraft” that would enable a gradual reduction in the number of crew members. Boeing executive Steve Nordlund said in 2018 that for it to happen, “a combination of safety, economics, and technology all have to converge, and I think we are starting to see that.”

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Trevor Mogg
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