Aeronautics is the branch of aerospace engineering that deals with the design, production, maintenance, and operation of aircraft. Since the remarkable first flight of the Wright brothers, aeronautical engineers have focused on having a fully pilot-free aircraft. Unmanned aerial vehicles […]
Aeronautics is the branch of aerospace engineering that deals with the design, production, maintenance, and operation of aircraft. Since the remarkable first flight of the Wright brothers, aeronautical engineers have focused on having a fully pilot-free aircraft.
Unmanned aerial vehicles are already in operation in form of drones. Autonomous flying is therefore hailed as the next big thing in aeronautics, with the potential to ensure a reduced cost of airline operation and optimal fuel consumption.
So, will you board a plane that flies without a pilot in the cockpit? Read on for more about autonomous planes which aeronautical engineers may soon unveil as a landmark innovation.
What Is an Autonomous Aircraft?
An autonomous aircraft can fly using automated control systems, without the intervention of a human pilot in the cockpit. Currently, most autonomous aircraft are unmanned aerial vehicles used as drones for military operations, delivery vehicles, agriculture, emergency rescue, space exploration, film production, among others. For an autonomous aircraft, all pilots and flight crew work from the ground, monitoring the flight from take-off to landing.
Self-Flying Aircraft Video
Basic Features of an Automated Aircraft
Aeronautical engineers and UAV manufacturers often install an in-built program to operate an unmanned aircraft. This enables the aircraft to perform its functions efficiently.
Below are the basic features that an automated aircraft would have:
The aircraft uses GPS or an inbuilt altimeter to determine the correct altitude setting. In the case of an assigned altitude, it uses barometric pressure readings to maintain the same assigned altitude without deviation. In addition, it achieves a stabilized altitude after a successful roll or pitch.
This feature enables the aircraft to return to a safe landing destination and an automatic touchdown in case of loss of signal from the control center.
Auto Takeoff and Landing
The aircraft can taxi out into the runway, take off, and land using both ground-based and onboard sensors
This feature prompts the aircraft to gain altitude after takeoff to avoid hitting obstacles like nearby trees or tall buildings. Finally, it can safely return to the exact take-off point
Care Free Movement
An automated aircraft moves horizontally along its flight path and automatically adjusts its yaw and roll settings
Waypoints are random checkpoints set within an aircraft’s flight path, that help the aircraft track direction and maintain the correct position. An automated aircraft uses the waypoint to navigate the system to locate critical checkpoints along its path
Benefits of an Autonomous Flight
Unlike traditional aircraft, automated flights will improve customer experience by combining speed, comfort, and reliability. In addition, unmanned autonomous vehicles offer the following benefits:
Through electric propulsion and hydrogen-powered engines, a sustainable flight will be a dream come true. This is due to zero carbon emission into the atmosphere.
The design of automated flying vehicles is distinct from the current wide-body fuselages and engines. Instead, they’ll be light, small, with a manageable weight that allows easy control and maneuver.
Although computer technology is sometimes subject to errors, automation enhances safety by eliminating accidents caused by human factors in aviation. An automated system is better equipped than a human pilot, with only a slight room for failure (if any).
Reduced engine noises, vibrating propellers, and overheating cabins, all mean that passengers will fly comfortably
Prototype Autonomous Models
In the run-up to building automated aircraft, many aerospace manufactures are battling out to produce the best models of unmanned aircraft. Here are a few prototypes of what to expect in the future:
The French aerospace company launched an automation project aimed at building an autonomous taxi. The project aims to boost flight operations by helping pilots focus on strategic decision-making when flying.
In January 2020, Airbus performed the first automated take-off using a test aircraft. The test crew consisted of test pilots and engineers, who performed eight successive automated takeoffs. In July 2020, Airbus performed another successful autonomous flight involving taxi, taking off, and landing, while the pilots simply watched in the cockpit.
A Video of an Autonomous Flight
Xwing is a startup aerospace company based in San Francisco. In May 2020, the company received certification from The Federal Aviation Administration to operate unscheduled cargo charter services.
The company designed an automated flight system that is retrofitted into an existing aircraft to integrate into onboard flight systems. Xwing’s automation system enables taxiing, taking off, landing, and flight operations on an automated flight. In addition, the software helps an aircraft detect and avoid obstacles, generates a flight plan, and enables communication with ground-based air traffic controllers.
In its maiden flight, Xwing retrofitted the system in a Cessna Caravan 208B. In February 2021, the automated plane taxied, took off, and landed safely without a pilot’s direct control.
Xwing’s Cessna 208B Demonstration Flight:
Source: Business Insider
Xwing’s Flight Video:
Contrary to the expectations of pilots and travelers, automated aircraft are not a distant reality. With an increased demand for flight safety, cockpit automation will form the bulk of aeronautical design concepts. Eventually, automated passenger airlines, cargo planes, more advanced drones, and flying taxis will be the next reality of flight.