Airbus looks to have taken pilotless commercial jet flight one step closer after revealing that one of its test aircraft has taken off automatically.
The European planemaker said that in tests conducted at Toulouse-Blagnac airport on December 18, an A350-1000 with two pilots sitting ready to take over, conducted eight takeoffs on auto-pilot.
Accompanying the press release was a photograph showing a pilot sitting with one hand at rest as the plane pitched up.
An Airbus test pilot is shown with one hand at rest as an A350-1000, fitted with image recognition technology, takes off automatically at Toulouse-Blagnac airport on December 18, 2019.
“We moved the throttle levers to the take-off setting and we monitored the aircraft. It started to move and accelerate automatically maintaining the runway center line, at the exact rotation speed as entered in the system. The nose of the aircraft began to lift up automatically to take the expected take-off pitch value and a few seconds later we were airborne,” said Airbus Test Pilot Captain Yann Beaufils.
The technology behind the takeoff is different from the Instrument Landing System (ILS) currently used around the world, Airbus said in its press release Thursday. Instead, the company said the automatic takeoff was made possible by image recognition technology installed directly on the aircraft.
The company says the next step is automatic vision-based landing and taxi sequences taking place by mid-2020.
March to automation
Airbus says that auto pilot takeoff is an important milestone for its Autonomous Taxi, Take-Off & Landing (ATTOL) project — one of several that Airbus is conducting on aviation autonomy.
Two crashes involving the Boeing 737 Max in late 2018 and early last year have raised questions about automation in flight. However, Airbus appears determined to take it to the next level.
Pilot shortages and airline operators that are keen to reduce costs have led to planemakers investigating greater levels of automation.
Swiss bank UBS has estimated that a pilot is typically in full control of a jet plane for an average of just 7 minutes on each flight. It has also claimed that single-pilot commercial and cargo planes could take to the skies within the next five years.
The bank claimed transition to one operating pilot would lead to a cost-saving opportunity for the commercial jet industry of at least $15 billion in annual pilot, training, fuel and insurance costs.
But one 2017 survey by UBS found that 63% of people oppose flying in a pilotless aircraft.