Pilots sat back and watched a plane take off entirely on its own as Airbus gets one step closer to fully self-flying aircraft

tpallini@businessinsider.com (Thomas Pallini)
Airbus

REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol/File Photo

  • An Airbus test aircraft successfully took off from Toulouse-Blagnac Airport in southern France autonomously without any pilot input. 
  • The test was part of Airbus' Autonomous Taxi, Take-Off, and Landing program that explores increasing autonomous technology in aircraft. 
  • The success of the test may be the next step in creating fully self-flying aircraft, though Airbus has said pilots will always be "at the heart of the operations." 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Airbus released photos on Wednesday of a flight test it conducted last month that may be the next step in making fully self-flying planes a reality.

The flight tests successfully sought to have one of its newest aircraft, the Airbus A350-1000 XWB, take off from Toulouse-Blagnac Airport in France completely on its own, aided by imagery from the aircraft's camera.

Test pilots for the European manufacturer said that all they had to do was line the aircraft up and engage the autopilot, with the aircraft doing the rest, including making the necessary corrections to stay on the centerline and bringing the plane's nose up when required.

Here's how the automatic takeoff was performed and what it means for the future of aviation. 

"It started to move and accelerate automatically maintaining the runway centre line, at the exact rotation speed as entered in the system," said Airbus test pilot Yann Beaufils. "The nose of the aircraft began to lift up automatically to take the expected take-off pitch value and a few seconds later we were airborne."

Airbus A350 Demonstrates First Fully Automatic Vision Based Take Off

Airbus

Photos released by Airbus show Beaufils' hand hovering over the side stick as the airplane's nose pointed towards the sky. He was not flying the aircraft, but merely an observer, though ready to take over if need be.

The plane's cameras ensured the plane was heading in the right direction.

The A350 typically has three exterior cameras installed both for viewing by the pilots and passengers.

Qatar Airways Airbus A350 1000 Farnborough

Business Insider/David Ibekwe

The cameras are usually located on the tail, belly, and near the forward landing gear of the aircraft, though some airlines opted against the feature.

Similar to self-driving cars, the cameras were fitted with technology to recognize the runway so that it could keep a straight path when departing.

Airbus A350 XWB Cockpit

Alex Davies / Business Insider

Wind and other runway hazards such as foreign object debris, or FOD, can potentially knock the aircraft off of the runway's centerline, which requires correction. Pilots must use the aircraft's brakes or the rudder to keep the aircraft on the centerline or risk the aircraft going off the runway's edge.

The test pilots reported that the aircraft automatically made those corrections without the need for pilot input, greatly reducing the workload during takeoff.

FILE PHOTO: An Airbus A350 takes off at the aircraft builder's headquarters in Colomiers near Toulouse, France, September 27, 2019. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/File Photo

Reuters

All they had to do was make sure everything was operating normally during the eight takeoffs.

The success of the takeoff is part of Airbus' Autonomous Taxi, Take-Off, and Landing project, which the manufacturer claims isn't to rush in a new era of self-flying planes, but to "explore autonomous technologies alongside other innovations."

FILE PHOTO: An Airbus A350 takes off at the aircraft builder's headquarters in Colomiers near Toulouse, France, September 27, 2019. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

Reuters

By providing more autonomous functions for the aircraft, Airbus claims the pilots can focus more on flight management and decision-making instead of actually operating the aircraft.  

Autonomous landings are nothing new with autoland being a feature on some of the world's most prolific passenger planes and even private jets.

Cirrus Vision Jet Auto landing 24

David Slotnick/Business Insider

Private aircraft manufacturer Cirrus recently unveiled a system where its Cirrus Jet aircraft would automatically land at the nearest usable airport with only the push of a button, doing everything from identifying the nearest airport, choosing a runway, lining up, performing the approach, landing, and coming to a full stop. 

Taxiing an aircraft, however, has historically been squarely a pilot-performed activity.

airplanes runway

Jingying Zhao/Getty Images

Though not as complex as taking an aircraft skyward, the taxi process is similar to driving as it includes traversing taxiways and ramp alleys, all while following the instructions of the air traffic control and avoiding other aircraft.

Now that Airbus has shown that the camera recognition technology can recognize the centerline of a runway, the next step would be recognizing the centerline of a taxiway.

An Airbus A350-1000 taxies during the 53rd International Paris Air Show at Le Bourget Airport near Paris, France, June 17 2019. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Reuters

The key would be to identify which centerlines apply to which taxiway and collision avoidance with other aircraft, as well as navigating tight spaces such as a parking stand.

Takeoff has similarly always been a pilot-required phase of flight; however, the act has been made easier with the help of autothrottle systems.

Airbus A350 Qatar Farnborough

AP

The takeoff/go-around switch found on modern airliners help control throttle on takeoff, aiding the pilot focused on controlling the aircraft's flight path and altitude.

Though Airbus said “pilots will remain at the heart of the operations,” the successful test of the new technology just eliminated another obstacle on the road to autonomous self-flying aircraft.

Airbus A350 1000 Farnborough Air Show 2018

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