Airbus is testing technology called DragonFly that aims to make its jetliners fully autonomous, but many are skeptical of systems that aim to remove pilots from the cockpit.
Airbus UpNext, a subsidiary of the aerospace giant that validates new technologies before deploying them across the fleet, has announced that it is testing new autonomous flight technology. Called DragonFly, the new technology handles automated operations such as diversions, landings and taxiing procedures through a combination of sensors, computer vision algorithms, and efficient guidance calculations. Airbus presented the new DragonFly technology as an additional level of security for emergency operations.
Airbus is investigating the next level of cockpit automation, testing a system that will provide advanced assistance from ground alerts to emergency diversions at cruising altitude in the event of crew incapacitation. The company says DragonFly is designed to allow the aircraft to perform an automatic landing even in harsh weather or low visibility conditions, while communicating with air traffic control as well as the airline’s operations team. The company is testing these new features with an A350-1000 aircraft at Toulouse-Blagnac airport.
In the event that the crew loses control of the aircraft, DragonFly technology can redirect the flight to the nearest suitable airport and facilitate a safe landing. Eventually, it is hoped that these technologies will pave the way for automatic landing or, at least, compensate for pilot failure in an emergency. If the captain has a fish, for example, explains the aerospace company in a blog post on its site. The name DragonFly (dragonfly in French) is not a mistake. Airbus says the technology is meant to mimic the insect’s ability to recognize certain locations.
These tests are one of many steps in the systematic search for technologies to further improve operations and safety. Inspired by biomimicry and nature, in the same way that dragonflies are known to be able to recognize landmarks, the systems developed are designed to identify landscape features that allow an airliner to “see” and can maneuver safely independently in its environment,” said Isabelle Lacaze, head of the Airbus UpNext demonstrator, in a press release.
A marketing video from DragonFly indicates that a safe landing feature is included. It works by detecting the most suitable airport for landing and calculating the route to get there, taking into account the weather, military zones and other factors. During the tests, the experimental Airbus aircraft was able to recognize and respond to external conditions, such as flying areas, certain terrains and the weather. The aircraft generates a new flight path and communicates this information to air traffic control and other airport operators, all autonomously.
In the video, Airbus is making sure the communication links between air traffic control and the operations control center are in place. On the other hand, the company does not say how the aircraft communicates with air traffic control to obtain clearance to enter controlled airspace in the event of pilot incapacitation, since this task is carried out by the interaction of person. . In addition, the DragonFly is equipped with a taxi assistance application to manage its ground maneuvers at a very busy airport. Air traffic control clearances are interpreted and translated into ground guidance signals.
Automation has become a standard feature of modern commercial aircraft, allowing pilots to leave many tasks to computer systems, especially at cruising altitude. Due to the level of computing power now available, some airlines and regulators are pushing to have only one pilot in the cockpit of airliners to reduce costs and ease the pressure caused by crew shortages. But critics of this measure believe it places too much responsibility on an individual.
However, in addition to technical challenges, autonomous flight technologies must also be accepted by travelers. In other words, passengers are used to having two pilots on the flight deck. But Airbus thinks that will change over time. Elevators have operators, for example, but that concept seems strange today. “With our safety track record, Airbus is ideally positioned to lead this transformation,” said Arne Stoschek, project director of Airbus Wayfinder, a project aimed at developing autonomous flight systems, in a statement two years ago ago
In 2020, the French aeronautical manufacturer explained that autonomous flight is not synonymous with an all or nothing proposition. He says it’s actually a custom combination of man and machine that will evolve over time. According to him, the systems will focus on the management of the aircraft while the pilot will remain at the heart of the operation to make decisions, presented with all the necessary information and having time to study it. It’s a goal for which the detection and avoidance image processing technology behind Airbus’ ATTOL and Wayfinder projects is essential.
Airbus UpNext has announced that it is using data from the DrongFly system test to “prepare the next generation of computer vision-based algorithms to advance landing and taxi assistance”. This means that in the not-too-distant future, you’ll find yourself in an aircraft with more automated features than previous models. The subsidiary of the French giant of aeronautics estimates that one day the DragonFly system will allow automatic landing at any airport, even if the ground equipment is equipped for this type of landing.
The French company does not hesitate to boast about its preparations for the future. Over the years, Airbus has funded several electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) projects, including Vahana and CityAirbus. The first is an oval-shaped, single-pilot eVTOL demonstrator, while the second can carry four passengers and has a range of 97 km. The company is also working with lidar startup Luminar to find applications for the laser sensor’s 3D mapping capabilities.
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