A ‘Jetsons’ Reality Is Closer Than You Think

A ‘Jetsons’ Reality Is Closer Than You Think

By Paula Hock

With recent buzz surrounding automation, most notably autonomous vehicles, the next question to ask is what comes next? For Boeing, the next step is self-flying planes, a step they may begin to take as early as next year.

Boeing’s Recent Announcement

At last week’s Paris Air Show, Boeing’s vice president for product development Mike Sinnett announced the company’s vision for solving a foreseen shortage of pilots with “autonomous behavior.” He sees a need for over 40,000 commercial aircraft over the next 20 years to keep up with air travel demands. This, of course, would require approximately 600,000 more pilots, the training of which is an expensive and time-consuming process.

With Sinnett’s interview comes Boeing’s expectation to have in-flight tests by 2019. They anticipate a transition away from a required aviator for tactical operation in favor of an autonomous vehicle operation system. However, this can happen only when the technology can operate on the expected levels of safety, integrity, and availability as is currently provided.

Current Autonomous Technology

It should come as no surprise to note that a fair amount of autonomous systems already exist in aviation. Most commercial aircraft fly on auto-pilot throughout a high percentage of the flight. Radio navigation (VOR) and GPS are used together with auto-pilot for flight between waypoints. Even a variety of auto-landing systems exist to land an aircraft in low visibility conditions.

The gap between today’s technology and the flying robots of the future (technologically speaking) lies in consistency and unified operations. In the case of autonomous vehicles, most experts agree that autonomous driving systems will reduce the US’s annual 40,000 traffic death toll, a low expectation barrier for incoming systems. In aviation, the number to beat is zero: no one has died in a jet crash in the U.S. since 2009. This is no small task.

Additionally, though Sinnett acknowledged that landing software could handle auto-takeoffs as well, no system has actually compiled all the systems together yet. This technology does need to undergo development to come to fruition.

The Future of Automated Flying

Boeing is certainly not the only company/research team in the development of automated flight technology. Teams in academia, the aviation industry, and government agencies alike have been working on various aspects of the technology for several years.

Successful tests have been performed to date, both for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and for manned/unmanned teaming. A researcher at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute has been working to develop smart UAVs with the capability of avoiding unanticipated objects in their flight paths. In April, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and Lockheed Martin demonstrated a successful manned/unmanned aircraft team in a strike package to improve combat efficiency and effectiveness.

Interestingly, one of Boeing’s major competitors seems to be focused on a distinctly different approach: Airbus revealed a modular, self-piloting flying car concept back in March. Their Vahana flying autonomous vehicle project has debuted a concept design at the Geneva Motor Show after several months of discussion.

With an eye beyond the skies, NASA has also begun research on automated planes and spacecrafts. If the logical next steps of automation are moving from vehicles to aircraft, why shouldn’t space exploration be next?

Image courtesy of pixabay.com

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