Autonomous flight is the ability of an aircraft to act independently to complete a mission or achieve a goal. It is downright exhilarating to see the emergence of technology that facilitates the realization of a self-flying aircraft let alone the possibility of an ecosystem to support and grow this upcoming revolution in avionics. To be clear, autonomous flight is here, it has been done, the achievement has been accomplished. Now, how do we create an ecosystem for this newly proven technology and how do we incorporate it into our lives?
Avionic companies large and small, well established and startup, are making significant strides in autonomous flight. Xwing and Reliable Robotics, two U.S. startup companies, have both recently claimed achievements in autonomous flights using Cessna aircrafts. Aircraft OEM, Airbus, successfully completed its Autonomous Taxi, Take-Off and Landing (ATTOL) project in 2020 which heavily utilized image recognition technology hosted on an A350 aircraft. Garmin Aviation has and is developing autonomous subsystems that assist in challenging situations and, if needed, land the aircraft if the pilot is incapacitated. A broad range of companies are investing in and developing autonomous flight technology that is addressing flight safety, cargo, and human transportation.
Regulatory authorities (RAs) such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) have both established regulations and guidelines for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). While mostly focusing on remotely piloted drones, this is an important steppingstone for autonomous flight in the regulatory environment.
- Step 1: Safe aircraft flight with pilots, air travel as we know it today.
- Step 2: Safe aircraft flight with remote pilots, UAV/drone operation.
- Step 3: Safe autonomous flight. History is now being made.
With safety as their primary goal, the RAs provide experimental licensing for aircraft, guidance on flight tests/paths, and airworthiness certification for autonomous flight aircraft so that companies can prove out their technology. The advancements and achievements that avionics companies have made in autonomous flight would not be possible without the cooperation and support of regulatory authorities such as the FAA and the EASA.
Industry standard associations are establishing a consensus of ideas, terminology, and definitions to create collaborative sets of standards for autonomous flight. The Radio Technical Committee for Aeronautics (RTCA) has tasked a special committee (SC-288) Minimum Performance Standards for Unmanned Aircraft Systems with authoring standards that pertain to systems operating in various classifications of airspace.
ATSM international Committee F38 on Unmanned Aircraft Systems has also authored specification ASTM F3269 – 17, which in summary, provides best practices as a guide to demonstrate safe operational behavior of an unmanned aircraft system.
The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has also published version 2.0 of its Standardization Roadmap for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which shows standards already in existence, standards in work, and potential gaps and issues. Standardization is and has been a mechanism for focused sustainable growth in technology and capability will no doubt be essential to widespread development and adoption of autonomous flight in the years to come.
NASA is working on autonomous solutions for various manned and unmanned aircraft systems to improve safety and functionality. The F16 Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS), credited with saving the lives of 11 F-16 pilots, is being modified to fit general aviation and autonomous flight aircraft. NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the National Airspace System (UAS-NAS) project is centered around how unmanned aircraft systems can operate in airspace occupied by piloted aircraft by primarily utilizing Detect and Avoid (DAA) and Command and Control (C2) technologies. Time-Based Conformance Monitoring (TBCM), the measurement of incremental flight path progress, is being explored as a performance-based method for determining if an unmanned aircraft is staying on track or needs intervention. Indeed, NASA is in full support of unmanned and autonomous flight as a recent publication titled “NASA Explores ‘Smart’ Data for Autonomous World” would suggest.
Now that autonomous flight is here and continues its evolution into a more practical technology for everyday use, how may it be beneficial to us? Many companies already have plans for autonomous cargo flights into rural regions to transport goods/services more effectively to and from remote areas. Bell Textron’s APT 70 series aircraft is expected to be used for autonomous flights delivering military and medical supplies. Boeing subsidiary, Aurora Flight Sciences Passenger Air Vehicle (PAV), autonomously transports people within a range of 50 miles, an autonomous air taxi if you will. As the number of start-ups increase in the autonomous flight industry the options will increase dramatically like the apps on our cell phones.
As I ponder the possibilities, I wonder if farm-to-table will literally be farm-autonomous UAS-to-table. Will this technology facilitate a mass rural population vs. a mass urban population as travel becomes ever more trivial in society? I can imagine a time in the future where people have their own autonomous UAS assistants. What can you imagine?
- Reliable Robotics.com
- Airbus concludes AATOL with fully autonomous flight tests, Airbus.com, June 29, 2020.
- Drones, EASA UAS.
- SC-228, Minimum Performance Standards for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, RTCA.org.
- Unmanned Aircraft Systems Standardization Collaborative (UASSC), ansi.org.
- Airspace 101 – Rules of the Sky, FAA.gov.
- Autonomous Software Saves Aircraft in Simulator Footage, Nasa.gov, June 7, 2021.
- NASA Armstrong Fact Sheet: Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the National Airspace System, Nasa.gov, July 17, 2019.
- NASA Explores “Smart” Data for Autonomous World, Nasa.gov, June 8, 2021.
Chris Young is owner/lead engineer at Young Engineering Services LLC.