Time to Let Go: Airbus Successfully Tests Autonomous Take-Offs

A small gesture that speaks a thousand words: a test pilot puts his hand on his colleague’s arm, as if to say: “You can let it go.” The colleague hesitates, then lets his hand hover slightly above the control stick. And at that moment, the Airbus A350-1000 also hovers, taking off on its own, carried by the wind beneath its wings – and algorithms.

On 18 December 2019, Airbus carried out its first autonomous aircraft take-off, using data supplied by an image recognition system oriented along the center line of the runway.

“The aircraft behaved as we expected during these important tests. We positioned it on the runway, waited for air traffic control clearance and switched on the autopilot,” Airbus test pilot Yann Beaufils said after the successful test flights. “We set the throttles to take-off position and observed the aircraft. It started moving, accelerated and automatically followed the runway centerline at the exact speed set in the system. The nose of the plane automatically went up to reach the defined angle of climb at takeoff, and a few seconds later we were in the air.” The test lasted about four and a half hours, and there were eight takeoffs.

ATTOL Research Project Enters Final Phase

With its ATTOL (Autonomous Taxi, Take-Off & Landing) project, Airbus has been investigating the extent to which autonomous systems in aircraft can reduce the workload of pilots and increase safety since June 2018. Autonomous, in contrast to automatic, means that all the relevant data and parameters come from the aircraft itself. The Airbus therefore flies independently of data from external sources such as that supplied by an ILS or GPS. Instead, it uses air measurement data and additional visual information from on-board cameras. This means that the aircraft is independent of existing airport infrastructure when taking off, landing and taxiing.

Although ATTOL also works with optical data, it is not necessarily dependent on good weather. “We have not yet pushed the algorithms to their limits, but we have already obtained interesting results in terms of reduced visibility. As we are only just carrying out the feasibility study, we have not yet optimized nighttime and darkness or heavy rainfall,” an Airbus spokesperson tells us.

Further trials with autonomous landing and taxiing are planned for the coming weeks. Airbus is not giving more precise details about the schedule in advance, but the tests should be completed soon. The entire project is scheduled to run for two years and is expected to end in June 2020.

Airbus is conducting research into autonomous flying in the light of increasing air traffic. If the sky becomes fuller, pilots should be able to concentrate fully on strategic decisions during flight. Autonomous technologies also have the potential to improve air traffic management and sustainability performance and further enhance flight safety, while ensuring that today’s unparalleled safety standards are maintained, Airbus says.

Airbus is Conducting Research on Scalable Autonomy Systems in Silicon Valley

There are several sites involved in the research and development of autonomous systems at Airbus. While the first autonomous launch was tested in Toulouse as part of the ATTOL project, the Airbus Innovation Centre at Acubed in Silicon Valley is already working to develop scalable, certifiable autonomous systems for aircraft ranging from small urban aircraft to large commercial aircraft.

ATTOL is a project of the Airbus UpNext think tank, which identifies trends that will revolutionize the aerospace industry, accelerate traditional R&D processes and develop market-ready applications.
The software developed at Wayfinder combines machine learning with visually determined data. This means that the aircraft “learns” to recognize its environment and to calculate how best to navigate in it. This is not dissimilar to an autonomously driving car: relevant data from camera, radar and laser applications are recorded and processed by a powerful on-board computer.

“The key challenge for developing autopilot functionality is how the system reacts to unforeseen events,” Wayfinder Project Executive Arne Stoschek explains. “This is the great leap from automatic to autonomous.” Even if aircraft could in future fly with only one pilot, it is difficult to predict today whether they actually will. On the one hand, there may be a lack of acceptance; on the other, it is a question of what people are used to, at least according to Stoschek. After all, there used to be elevator attendants in the past – would be considered strange today.

Text by Corinna Panek
Photos: Airbus
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