Autonomous aircraftThe Future of Autonomous Aircraft

Published 16 December 2020

Imagine a world of aerial delivery drones bringing goods right to your door, small air taxis with fewer than six passengers flying about cities, supersonic airliners crossing continents and oceans, and sixth-generation fighter aircraft patrolling battle zones – and all without the intervention or even supervision of a human pilot. That may sound like the far-off future, but it’s already arriving thanks to autonomous flight systems that may one day make pilots an optional extra.

Imagine a world of aerial delivery drones bringing goods right to your door, small air taxis with fewer than six passengers flying about cities, supersonic airliners crossing continents and oceans, and sixth-generation fighter aircraft patrolling battle zones – and all without the intervention or even supervision of a human pilot. That may sound like the far-off future, but it’s already arriving thanks to autonomous flight systems that may one day make pilots an optional extra. We recently caught up with Professor Ella Atkins, the director of the University of Michigan’s  Autonomous Aerospace Systems (A2SYS) Lab, and asked her about this remarkable technology and its implications.

“If you look back at the history of aviation,” says Aitkins, “there used to be three people in the front of major commercial transport aircraft. Along with the pilot and the co-pilot was an engineer, who looked after the engines and other flight systems. At that time, there were planes running out of fuel or otherwise having mismanaged systems because the engineer either wasn’t paying attention or made a calculation error. Now, you hardly ever hear of that because the computers handle that sort of problem really well.

“Then came instruments and radios to help guide people through the sky. Back to the 1920s or 1930s, people would get lost in bad weather or at night without clear land markers, so a number of navigation aids were brought into play followed by air traffic control.

“Along with all of this came autonomy. That’s progressed to the point where the pilot mainly supervises the software that controls the plane. Now, we’re going to the next step where the software backs up the pilot to make sure decisions are safe, whether it’s commercial, military, hobby, giant aircraft with several hundred people, or tiny unmanned aircraft. To do this, we study a lot of different topics in emergency flight management, in looking at backup data streams, and understanding whether they agree and what to do when they don’t agree.”

What Is Autonomy?
Essentially, an autonomous machine is one that can, either independently or as part of a data network, carry out tasks without human supervision or intervention to one degree or another. More than that, a full-blown autonomous system can override the human.

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