Automation and the pilot in the cockpit
With new technology allowing drones into US airspace, manned aircraft do still have a future.
IFATS airspace program, developed in Europe, would accommodate manned and drone aircraft within a comprehensive ATC system. Drones would carry passengers from terminal to terminal, even landing safely in emergencies.
This development alone should make corporate aviation an even better option for executives who need to visit outlying divisions, suppliers and clients in marginal weather conditions. Local area augmentation system (LAAS) provides ground-based path definitions and course corrections within approximately 30 miles of a major airport.
While WAAS is already operational in many areas, LAAS is still under development. In tests, LAAS has allowed precise curved approaches with accuracies of less than a meter, horizontally and vertically.
At the Memphis TN test site, approved procedures for transitioning planes from the enroute phase to approach as far out as 160 miles are expected to be in place by 2010. RNP is the third component of this system.
Onboard avionics will monitor the aircraft's position by comparing GPS data with internal databases, and will alert the pilot to any deviation from the intended flightpath. RNAV will be mandated everywhere within US airspace by 2025, and RNP will be required in congested enroute and terminal airspace.
By providing much more precise and flexible positioning, navigation and timing (PNT), these next-generation technologies will make it possible to confine aircraft within much narrower flight corridors.
This will allow more planes to share congested airspace, speeding arrivals and reducing fuel consumption on approach.
Once experience has proved that autopilot and autoland functions based on RNAV and RPN are even more reliable than today's technologies, they are likely also to ease FAA's traditional dependence on see-and-avoid. This will bring truly autonomous aircraft one step closer.
Another, more radical approach comes from the European Commission-funded Innovative Future Air Transport System (IFATS) project undertaken by a consortium of research laboratories and academic institutions from France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Israel.
Its goal is to provide "improved safety and efficiency of air transportation." Its chosen method of achieving this is to replace pilots with avionics. Specifically, IFATS aims to develop fully autonomous passenger-carrying aircraft.
The airplanes envisioned by the IFATS project would be far more capable than any drone yet built. They could taxi automatically from the terminal to the runway, take off and land safely in a 15-kt crosswind, and deliver passengers to the terminal gate.
Close approach of an aircraft outside the system's control or loss of their datalink to the ground would trigger an onboard collision avoidance system capable of averting a crash with less than 60 sec warning.
Honda's Asimo robot can walk or run on 2 feet at up to 6 km/hr, climb stairs, recognize moving objects, human gestures and faces, and navigate through congested terrain.
The automated controls would even be capable of landing safely after losing an engine during any phase of flight. On engine-out, the plane would squawk to the intended destination, where ground systems would automatically replan for an emergency landing.
Even the decision to go around or proceed with landing would be made without human intervention. Humans would not be completely divorced from the airplane under the IFATS scheme.
For each aircraft, a human operator-a pilot of sorts-would oversee the technology from the ground. Under extreme circumstances, he could even take over control of the aircraft, much like the pilot of a contemporary RPV.
Even here an airplane's owner would save money. Because the operator's duties are expected to be simpler than those of today's pilots, training would cost only half as much, and an operator's salary is projected to be about 60% that of a full-fledged pilot.
Of course, the plan also saves 100% of the right-seater's salary. The IFATS vision looks technically feasible. FAA's plans for RNAV and RNP are only a small step from fully autonomous flight, and navigation precise to less than a meter is more than good enough.
The IFATS consortium has already completed much of the work required for the next step by developing computer algorithms for the autonomous collision avoidance system and other avionics required by a pilotless airplane. At first glance, it seems to be economically feasible as well.
Autonomous operations would not be cheap, but the IFATS consortium believes they would more than pay their way. The group estimates that a 220-passenger airliner priced at $36 million would cost about $37.8 million once the necessary hardware was installed.
In compensation, it could hold 230 passengers, cruise about 5% faster and use 5% less fuel, all due to the absence of a cockpit. At the same time, yearly flight hours would likely increase from an average 3650 to 3833, while annual maintenance would decline by 20%.
The consortium even expects to save money on insurance and legal liability, because automated systems would-in their view-be more reliable than human pilots. And, because automated planes could carry more passengers faster and more often, pre-tax profits per aircraft would leap by an estimated 42% from around $15.7 million to $22.4 million.
These estimates deal only with the aircraft itself, not with ground hardware. Yet a few million dollars more in incidentals is a reasonable price to pay for an extra $6.7 million per year in clear profits per airplane.