Bombardier Dash-8 Q400 Cockpit

Boeing Announces Study for Self-Flying Airliners

Boeing has announced that it is going to begin studying autonomous flying technologies that could eventually be implemented in passenger airliners, according to Reuters . “The basic building blocks of the technology clearly are available,” said Mike Sinnett, Boeing‘s vice president of product development.

The announcement comes a week and a half before the annual Paris Air Show , one of the biggest aviation events in the world. A self-flying airliner is a logical continuation of autopilot systems that are already in place, and Boeing has the backing of many major airline companies who are interested in more efficient flight. On major airline flights, the autopilot system can handle takeoff, cruise, and landing, and the pilot spends his time monitoring things like weather conditions and fuel consumption.

The pilot will take control of the craft in rough flying conditions or to make heading adjustments, but a lot of the work is already done by the airplane. As Wired points out , different airplane manufacturers and airlines make use of different levels of automation in commercial flights. U.S. airlines place more responsibility on the pilot to control the aircraft, while Asian carriers actually prohibit their pilots from taking control in a number of situations. The pilot or captain does not fly above 3,000 feet on Asiana airlines, for example, and the co-pilot or first officer is prohibited from landing the plane. The type of plane plays a role, too.

Airbus tends to rely more heavily on automation, giving the computer control unless the pilot overrides it. Boeing favors letting the human make the final decision with automated systems guiding and assisting, but not dictating. “Both have advantages and disadvantages,” says Clint Balog, a former test pilot who researches human performance, cognition, and error at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. “Airbus tries to avoid human error; Boeing tries to take advantage of human capability.”

Even as effective as autopilot has become, there is still a long way to go before FAA approval of self-flying jetliners. As Sinnett, a pilot himself points out, a completely autonomous flight system would need to be able to to pull off feats like the “Miracle on the Hudson” when Captain Chesley Sullenberger saved all 155 people aboard his Airbus A320 by landing on the Hudson River after a collision with a flock of geese blew out all engine power. Until a self-flying plane can analyze available airports, make that kind of emergency landing decision, communicate it with air traffic, and safely land the plane, then autonomy will still be restricted. “If it can’t, then we can’t go there,” says Sinnett. In addition, a self-flying plane would require an entirely new certification process, which will take time to iron out. Boeing continues to work on its newest versions of the 737 narrow-body and 787 wide-body airliners to enter service in the coming years. A self-flying program would be a long-term play in preparation for expected rapid growth in the aviation market in the coming decades. A pilotless self-flying […]

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