Airbus to begin test landing a passenger plane autonomously

Airbus’s A350 aircraft  (Mango Producciones / Airbus)
Airbus’s A350 aircraft (Mango Producciones / Airbus)

Assistive tech can already help motorists park their cars - next up, it could lend a hand in plane cockpits.

Passenger aircraft manufacturer Airbus willstart test landing a plane autonomously using its latest flight systems.

The tech relies on a mix of sensors, computer vision algorithms, and “robust” guidance calculations to assist pilots in emergencies.

As part of the trial phase, Airbus integrated the software into a single A350-1000 widebody airliner. It also equipped the craft with three external cameras below the flight-deck windscreen, according to aviation news site AIN Online.

If a medical emergency should arise, the Dragonfly system can automatically select the ideal airport and flight path for a diversion. It can also land the plane and support pilots in navigating complex taxiways at busy airports, such as Heathrow.

Overall, the tech could make flying safer by freeing up crew to focus on the flight itself, and possibly even lessen delays by reducing disruptions during landing and takeoffs.

However, you probably won’t see a pilot-less cockpit on a passenger flight any time soon. Airbus has reportedly quashed suggestions that the tech could be used to pivot to single-pilot airline operations. The company insists that the goal is to provide an extra level of safety for dual-pilot aircraft. For instance, in the unlikely scenario where a crew is unable to control the plane, Dragonfly could take over flight duties.

It can also warn pilots of objects on the runway and relay information back to air-traffic control using its own voice systems. Some of these features have already been tested in simulated and real-time operating conditions on flights across south-western France and at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport.

The final three months of testing is currently underway and will see Airbus working closely with aviation regulators on a concept for operations.

The Dragonfly project indicates where air transportation is headed. Alongside Airbus, a number of startups are developing and trialing autonomous aircraft tech for non-commercial planes.

They include Google-backed firm Merlin, which previously retrofitted a fleet of 55 King Air utility aircraft with its self-flying systems. While Garmin’s auto-land software allows small planes to switch to autonomous navigation and landing with a push of a button. There’s also X-Wing, which in 2021 claimed to have completed the first gate-to-gate demonstration of a commercial cargo flight.