This year, 90 airplanes have crashed, resulting in 459 fatalities. The worst of those happened last week, when a charter flight carrying members of the Chapecoense Real soccer team from Brazil crashed outside Medellin, Colombia. Seventy-one people died in what the Guardian and other news outlets reported was human error. The pilot's flight plan estimated the flying time and fuel range as identical, leaving no time for delays. The plane ran out fuel, causing an electrical failure.
An autonomous plane could eliminate human error altogether and improve flight safety. UK-based BAE Systems, a defense, security and aerospace company, is working toward that goal. They've outfitted a Jetstream 31 aircraft with oodles of sensors, including visual cameras, infrared cameras, an airplane avoidance antenna, weather sensors, ground detecting sensors and other equipment and this week have have begun flying it 300 miles between Lancashire, England and Inverness, Scotland.
In all, the company will run 17 flights to assess the software and sensor systems that "see" clouds without radar, reports the BBC.
Peggy Hollinger of the Financial Times got a firsthand view from the cockpit. "We are the guinea pigs for the successor to the driverless car: the pilotless plane," she writes.
This plane doesn't just fly from point A to point B, it has the capability to determine the best course, even without direction from air traffic control. The plane flew at 15,000 feet, an altitude considered non-congested airspace, since most commercial planes fly higher.
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BAE, a defense company, wouldn't normally be helping the U.K. speed development of civilian aircraft, they have a ulterior motive, writes Hollinger. It wants to build unmanned aircraft for combat, but so far cannot test those airplanes in the United Kingdom. So this is a nice compromise.
Other companies are eyeing autonomous planes, too, although to what extent still seems, well, cloudy. Most contemporary commercial jets have flight-control computers and autopilot functions capable of approaching runways within tens of feet. The technology is nearly all the way there, but big airline makers like Boeing and Airbus remain tight-lipped about it.
At the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech Conference in January 2015, John Tracy, Boeing's chief technology officer, told the crowd "...there is no doubt in our minds that we can solve the problem of autonomous flight. It's a question of certification procedures, regulatory requirements and, even more significantly, public perception." But Tracy wouldn't say more.
Currently, the FAA has no certification that would cover autonomous aircraft.
That hasn't stopped Uber. In September, its products chief Jeff Holden told Re/code that the company was researching the idea of using aircraft with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) to fly people around town.
An although Airbus remains adamant that it is not working autonomous planes, its subsidiary called A³ ("A-cubed") is developing a VTOL craft called Vahana, a self-piloted vehicle that can automatically detect and avoid obstacles and other aircraft. A³'s CEO, Rodin Lyasoff wrote on his blog, "We're aiming to make it the first certified passenger aircraft without a pilot."
Autonomous planes are coming; there's no doubt.
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