Eye in the Sky: Unmanned Aircraft Start Trials

Until now, unmanned aircraft technologies have been limited to drones and other similar small devices, but that might be changing soon.

The first unmanned aircraft trials have begun to determine their viability and how to incorporate these unmanned planes into UK airspace.

Are the engineers at BAE Systems close to creating the Tesla autopilot of the air with their autonomous aircraft?

Why Autonomous Aircraft?

Why is there a push toward creating planes that can fly themselves to run commercial routes? While it might sound like a great recent innovation, it’s actually something that most commercial airliners have been working toward for more than three decades. The idea is to create more automation and to remove the possibility of human error.

The movement toward aircraft automation started back in the 1980s when aircraft controls were automated. This move eliminated the need for a flight engineer, which until that point had been required for the aircraft to function. Newer airplane models rely heavily on automation, to the point that the pilot has little to do during a flight. While the airliners can be flown manually, it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to.

BAE Systems is currently the only company that has admitted to actively working on autonomous planes. The biggest question is whether or not passengers will be comfortable getting into a plane that doesn’t have a pilot.

Advances in Engineering

BAE Systems, the multinational company that specializes in fields like defense, security and aerospace technologies, has started their newest series of tests for unmanned commercial aircraft. While they’ve already made great advances in unmanned flight, as can be seen in their Taranis unmanned fighter, the purpose of these tests isn’t combat-related.

Instead, BAE Systems and their engineers are testing to determine whether or not these autonomous aircraft could function in commercial airspace with regular air traffic. The aerodynamics of flight still apply to autonomous aircraft, too. They must be properly insulated for various weather conditions while still being aerodynamically sound — so they can’t be overly heavy or cumbersome. They also need to have the all radio function to be controlled from afar, rather than from inside the cockpit.

The Jetstream 31 that is being used as a test bed for this set of trials is designed to be flown autonomously but does have pilots aboard who can take over at any time if the need arises. The Jetstream itself is controlled by satellite, the communications link being used to decide course changes and identify other aircraft in the area. It is also equipped with things like an antenna that allow it to detect aircraft transponders and a camera that acts as an eye in the sky.

The Jetstream can even identify poor weather conditions and plot a course to avoid them.

The goal of these trials to determine whether or not an autonomous aircraft could function in an active airspace without the assistance of a pilot.

Autonomous Aircraft Will Bring Industry Changes

How could the introduction of functional autonomous aircraft affect the aerospace industry? As with every advance in technology, there are pros and cons to it:

  1. Autonomous aircraft could reduce problems caused by human error. This is one of the big reasons behind the push for autonomous cars, but it’s not as much of an issue with aircraft. For 2015, the International Air Transport Association found that there were no commercial aircraft fatalities in the world. This does exclude criminal acts.
  2. Autonomous aircraft could reduce crew costs. This could be seen as a pro or a con. On the pro side, it can reduce costs for airlines by reducing the number of crew needed for each flight. A single pilot could potentially be utilized for flights, and if a problem arises with the pilot, the plane could be controlled from the ground. On the con side of things, though, this could potentially put a large number of pilots out of work.
  3. Autonomous aircraft could potentially face the same ethical dilemmas as autonomous cars. These ethical situations require more than programming answers before there are satisfactory answers. Do you allow the plane to crash into a school to save your passengers, or do you have it crash into a mountainside instead to save the school but potentially kill the passengers?

The outcome of these Jetstream 31 tests could potentially shape the future of autonomous aircraft for use in commercial settings if they are successful. Whether or not they ever replace human pilots is another matter entirely and a discussion for another day.

Featured image first found on Aviation Week. Photo Credit: BAE Systems

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