The Future of Aviation: Autonomous Aircraft

April 6, 2020

Autonomous aircraft were once the stuff of dreams. Now they're a reality. Learn how businesses are taking advantage of autonomous aircraft and the safety challenges which come with them.

The Future of Aviation
Airplane cockpit

When we’re travelling in an aeroplane, it’s almost impossible to think about what’s going on in the cockpit.

Take this opportunity to give it a thought… What’s really happening in there? Is the traditional two-pilot team still a thing or have things moved on since the last time you thought about it? We won’t dare guess when it last crossed your mind, but we dare say that things are a lot different than they once were!

Unlike very old commercial aircrafts that often had no autopilot installed, nowadays more modern aircraft possess technology which is able to reduce or even replace the pilots’ action on many of the manoeuvring activities, such as controlling engine throttle, navigation guidance, or even landing those giant steel birds.

While highly autonomous systems come with some side effects – for example, pilots may lose track of what’s happening while their aircraft is flying autonomously, and over time could lose some sharpness in terms of their skills – the industry is fully committed to supporting autonomous flying. In fact, airlines and manufacturers highlight the savings that automation brings and how it alleviates the shortage of qualified pilots.

Several companies are already developing fully autonomous aircraft, including delivery companies like UPS who want to use them for their business. Other major commercial airlines are also designing self-flying air taxis that would be used for 30-minute flights and carry between two to four passengers. Sounds like sci-fi, right? It’s closer than we ever thought – prototypes have already been tested!

The real question is: how willing are passengers to entrust their onboard safety to fully autonomous aeroplanes? Safety as well as comfort are essential when considering such a change in aircraft technology and handling, so it’s critical to inform passengers about the benefits of automation in aviation, including reliable automated warning systems that prevent mid-air collisions and crashes. Or even the fact that automated systems can be reprogrammed to prevent the same error happening twice, whereas humans are prone to repeating mistakes. The truth is that people don’t feel safe relying on something they don’t know well enough, and it’s in the industry’s hands to change these perceptions and to win people’s ’hearts and minds’ by creating safer technology.

Automation is certainly not going away – in fact, it’s becoming more prevalent than ever in the cockpit. We’ve addressed this in a previous article and you’ll be surprised to know how long pilots actually control aeroplanes for during standard international flights. Considering all the improvements and advances in this regard, it’s expected that fully autonomous flights will be as common as today’s manned flights in just a few decades’ time. As the development of such technology continues apace, companies and passengers alike will need to evaluate the risks and benefits of autonomous aeroplanes – in terms of safety, financial impact or even people’s emotions.

As with all kinds of software, there is one aspect of the development lifecycle that must always be present, right from the very beginning: testing. In order to ensure that software is robust, safe and reliable, test engineers must verify and validate said software to find flaws and errors that might jeopardise its correct operation. Testing plays an extremely important role in safety and it’s the one way to build 100% reliable and autonomous aircraft. Check out our safety-critical offer in the aviation industry to learn more about what we do and how we do it.

Do aeroplanes baffle you? Would you like to know more about the technology behind keeping these great machines in the air? Click the button below to download our white paper entitled "An Introduction to Aerodynamics, Software & Certification in Safe Flight".


Want to learn more about our work?

Download the white paper below to learn a bit more about our work.