The concept of unmanned commercial flight has been banned for years. The technology was practically ready, but there was little solid evidence that autonomous flight could ever actually take off from the ground. Until now.
Airbus confirmed that one of its unmanned airliners automatically took off from Toulouse, France, last December.
The European aerospace company conducted a series of successful tests on autonomous flight last month, with two pilots on board but just in case.
According to Airbus, the A350-1000 achieved eight perfect automatic takeoffs during a four and a half hour test.
"While we were completing the alignment on the runway, waiting for the clearance from the air traffic control, we engaged the autopilot"Airbus test pilot, the captain explained in a statement Yann Beaufils.
“We moved the throttle levers to the take-off setting and monitored the plane. It started moving and accelerating automatically while maintaining the center line of the track, at the exact rotational speed entered into the system. "
"The nose of the plane started to lift automatically and seconds later we were in flight."
Airbus successfully completed the first fully automatic take-off with unmanned airliners.
In a video posted by Airbus, one of the pilots is seen with his hands off the controls as the A350-1000 successfully takes off.
A new technology
The result of the unmanned aircraft was obtained through a new image recognition technology installed directly on board. To be clear it is not a "classic" instrument landing system (ILS), which sends radio waves from the runway, providing pilots with vertical and horizontal guidance.
With its unmanned aircraft, Airbus announces that it will also test automatic landing sequences by the end of the year.
Unmanned aircraft: curiously welcome (really?)
In 2019, a survey of 22.000 people by the US software company Ansys indicated that 70% of travelers would be willing to fly on a fully autonomous plane. Sure? Yes, it is true that the idea of unmanned aircraft has often been cited as a solution to the shortage of personnel and a way to reduce costs.
At present, commercial flights already land with the assistance of onboard computers, with pilots piloting the plane manually for a few minutes on average.
It is also true that many have raised concerns about the safety of unmanned aircraft, particularly after the two 737 Boeing 2019 MAX crashes, which have been linked to a software problem.
It is not a question of technology
"It's a question of interacting with lawmakers and perception of passengers," he said Christian scherer, commercial director of Airbus. He is right.
He added that the Boeing disasters "Have highlighted and underlined the need for absolute and uncompromising safety in this sector, whether from Airbus, Boeing or any other company".
Today, it appears that Airbus' stance on the matter remains the same.
Airbus remains cautious, however
Despite the success of its test flights and subsequent plans for future tests, the airline claims that the mission is not that of “Moving forward with autonomy as an objective in itself, but as a means”.
The analysis of the potential of these technologies will help to "improve flight operations and overall aircraft performance" (just think to the incredible SABER under development, which will take passengers from London to New York in an hour).
The pilots, however, will remain "at the center of operations", according to a statement by the company. In other words: unmanned planes DRIVING, but someone will be on board.
"Autonomous technologies are key to supporting pilots, allowing them to focus less on aircraft operations and more on strategic decision making and mission management," He concludes.
Current air traffic laws in much of the world require the "four eyes" rule in the cockpit. This means that two pilots must always be present. If one requests a break, the other must be ready to step in and take their place.