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The Future of Aviation and Pilotless Planes

What does the future of aviation hold? We discuss the newest technology - pilotless planes, drones and air taxis –and discuss what is coming next with Aerospace Engineer Simone Paternostro of Nottingham University.

In 2013, more than 11,000 drones flew in military missions for the USA, a figure that represents more than half the world’s total commercial airliners, and this technology is already being used to carry humans in Europe. And in June 2017, Boeing announced they will begin tests on their new pilotless plane technology within a year. In other words, the aircraft of the future have already arrived.

We explore recent developments in aviation technology, and discuss future aircraft with Aerospace Engineer Simone Paternostro of Nottingham University.

A white unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV flying over a residential urban area on a sunny afternoon
A white unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV flying over a residential urban area on a sunny afternoon

The widespread interest in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Pilotless Drone Aircraft Technology among aircraft manufacturers and their clients means that technology is developing in numerous companies and locations simultaneously. Aurora Flight Sciences, a Virginia-based aircraft manufacturer, is developing the Centaur Optionally Piloted Aircraft, a plane that can be flown with or without a pilot on board. You may have heard of the company’s groundbreaking work already, because Aurora is the company responsible for flying aircraft on Mars in collaboration with NASA. The Centaur is a modified Diamond DA42, programmed for three modes of flight: In the first mode it is flown by a human pilot; in the second, by a remote pilot on the ground; in the third, again by a remote pilot, this time with an onboard safety pilot in the cockpit for see-and-avoid awareness.

The Centaur is not an experiment, it is a commercial product already in use by the Swiss Defense Department. The manufacturer’s ultimate goal is to develop a fully automated air taxi, whereby the passenger enters the aircraft, pushes buttons to enter their destination airport, and sits back; half Uber ride in an autonomous car, half private jet charter.

On the larger end of the scale, Boeing is planning for a time when large passenger jets can fly without pilots. The Chicago-based manufacturer plans initial tests on their technology next year. Given that jetliners can already take off, cruise and land using onboard flight computers, Boeing believes its biggest obstacle will be the regulators, who don't yet know how to certify pilotless planes, rather than the technology.

In early 2016 Airbus Group’s A3 division, based in Silicon Valley, opened its Vahana project, focusing on small, self-piloted aircraft designed to carry one or two passengers. In a recent blog, project executive Rodin Lyasoff said of the company’s Vahana air taxi, “Think of the Star Wars scenes of the aerial highways over the city-planet of Coruscant and you get the idea.”

On the cargo side of the aircraft industry, in 2016 Amazon announced that it will partner with the British government to test the viability of delivering small parcels by drone in the UK. Amazon was granted permission to explore three key areas: operations beyond line of sight, obstacle avoidance, and flights where one person operates multiple autonomous drones.The experiment will look at drones carrying deliveries weighing 2.3kg (5 lb) or less. This type of order makes up 90% of Amazon’s sales. Amazon is also testing similar technology in the US, but faces serious restrictions from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The advantages of automation

Like most technological changes, the rise of the pilotless aircraft is driven by economics. The airline industry is experiencing strong profits, growth in ultra-long air routes, and capacity expansion. For instance, there were an estimated 200,000 active pilots in the passenger aircraft fleet over 100 seats in 2015, and this will grow to 450,000 by 2035. In order to meet demand, while allowing for drop-out rates caused by retirement, illness and other factors, the industry needs to train 560,000 new pilots in the next 20 years. Developing UAVs and pilotless drone aircraft is one way of handling the global pilot shortage, and potentially a very economical one. Think about it: Airlines could save on training, aircrew salaries and benefits, healthcare coverage, pensions, layover hotels and daily stipends. In addition to this, they would most likely reduce fuel costs as autonomous flights are more fuel-efficient (meaning a shift towards UAVs could also be good for the environment).

Another reason for the shift towards pilotless aircraft is that they are likely to prove safer, because flight crew error is involved in around half of all fatal airline accidents. And without pilots, airplane hijacking by passengers would also be a thing of the past.

Obstacles to the pilotless era

A drone surveillance aircraft
A drone surveillance aircraft

However, the development of UAVs needs to combat several obstacles and challenges. Many are technical; for instance the creation of strong sense and avoid systems, manual override procedures, and navigation. And for pilotless aircraft to become safe enough to carry passengers, expensive rebuilding of the entire civil aviation infrastructure would be necessary. This would mean changes in everything from air traffic control to the technical minutiae of every aircraft in a fleet.

Another challenge that could prove equally complex is the public’s perception of automated travel. Passengers seem to fear autonomous system failure more than human error. Consider the public response when, earlier this year, a Tesla Autopilot feature error resulted in the death of its driver, Joshua Brown. As movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix knew, the idea of being helpless and under threat from malfunctioning technology is a horrifying thought to many.

The future of aviation: An expert opinion

What will the future bring in terms of new aviation technology, and how will new inventions impact our lives? We interviewed Aerospace Engineer Simone Paternostro, a fellow of Nottingham University, to discuss what he sees on the horizon.

ACS: Military drones have been used by the military for at least 17 years, with the first recorded use by the CIA in Afghanistan in 2000. Where do you see drone technology progressing in the next few years?
Simone: Once drones are certified and deemed safe enough to fly around urban areas, we should begin seeing “sky highways” appearing around the city. In other words, drones would follow a specific path in order to minimise danger to individuals and property. As drone technologies are developed, they can be transferred to the aviation industry. These days, there are many aircraft that have an autopilot system that can take off and land independently, and I believe that in the future aircraft will be fully autonomous.

Simone Paternostro
Simone Paternostro

ACS: What’s the biggest change that needs to occur before this happens?
Simone: The safety of the new systems used in drones is not 100% reliable. One of the on-board subsystems of drones and UAVs is called collision and avoidance. This needs to be fully developed, because we don't want a UAV flying around that might not recognise an obstacle and crash, falling on private property or worse still on people.

ACS: Can you give us an example of how technological developments might change our experience of flying?
Simone: Yes. At present, aircraft fly along a predefined route that is not always direct. One reason for this is that planes need to travel in areas which have Ground Navigation Systems. The use of new navigation systems like GPS or in general GNSS should give rise to more direct routes. This would potentially mean not only shorter flight times, but also lower costs, due to lower fuel consumption and flight staff wages.

ACS: How about airports. Are they going to change?
Simone: They are. Now, airports have large queues of planes landing and taking off from the runway one at a time, which happens for safety reasons. With new navigation technologies, it will be possible for multiple aircraft to land and take off simultaneously, radically increasing the efficiency of airports.

So what’s next?

Recent developments do not end with unmanned aerial vehicles, air taxis and pilotless drone aircraft. Ultra-lightweight airplanes, blended wing-bodies, and quiet supersonic commercial travel are under development at NASA. Aero Glass, a new product that sits over the eyes allowing pilots to visualize terrain, navigation, traffic (ADS-B), weather, and airspace, is available in an early form. And manufacturer Terrafugia claims they are just two years away from producing a flying car with an optimal speed of 200 miles per hour and vertical take-off and landing capability. The aviation industry is in a creative and rapidly developing phase making the future hard to anticipate. One thing that can be safely predicted, however, is change.

Until your unmanned flying car arrives, why not charter a private jet? ACS will handle every detail leaving you free to enjoy your flight.

With special thanks to Simone Paternostro and the University of Nottingham.



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