a plane flying in the sky

If the future freaks you out, you may want to look away. An Airbus A350-1000, capable of holding hundreds of passengers, just completed an entirely automatic take-off, without any pilot intervention on the controls as the plane rotated away from the ground.

People are often freaked out when they learn that most of the manoeuvres performed on every flight around the world are done by the automatic pilot. Pilots don’t typically touch the flight controls much above 2500 feet after take off, and leave the autopilot on, down to as low as 100 feet before landing, but it’s all much safer and more logical than you might assume.

In the most extreme weather, pilots let the computer land the plane, because signals on the ground can keep the plane on the correct course far better than the human eye can. When it comes to take off however, there’s presently no solution for such low visibility where automatic flying would be safer, and air traffic grinds to a halt.

Airbus is aiming to change that, with fully automated take offs, using an artificial intelligence system to visually guide the plane, as if it can see through its own eyes. Think of it much like the way cars can now drive themselves.

a plane flying in the skyBasically, a system installed on the plane can “visually” track the runway’s central light strip, using sensors all over the plane. Using the data, it can make automatic adjustments to keep the aircraft rolling on the correct course, and will know when it’s time to “pull up” and begin the take off rotation, known to aviation geeks as “Vr”.

In a gesture of extreme faith, the pilots in charge on this first ever test took their hands off the flight controls just before the rotation, showing visually that this was fully real. Next up: taxiways. Note: if the video won’t play on here, simply click this link to head to the tweet directly on Twitter and watch.

The idea is that in the not-so-distant future, all the actual manoeuvres of the plane could be carried by the system, as the autonomous system detects objects, calculates distances and follows orders. Pilots would therefore be able to keep their eyes on other critical safety elements of the flight, such as monitoring engines and looking for traffic, without having to worry about maintaining an altitude or course by hand.

In increasingly crowded airspace, pilots being freed up to pay better attention to air traffic control and make quick course inputs into the flight director is a greater priority than the joys of manually flying an airplane. Pilots must adapt to fast changing instructions in the world of modern flying, and while this system may take some of the amusement out of the job for some, it should increase safety for all air passengers.

Maybe just try not to think about it…

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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