Who's flying this thing?

Airbus has revealed that it has successfully conducted the first autonomous takeoff by an A350-1000.

Last Thursday, the company revealed that it had been conducting the self-piloting flights at its testing site from the Toulouse-Blagnac airport, near the company's French operational headquarters.

With a crew of five – two pilots, two flight engineers and a test flight engineer – the top-secret test flights were conducted at the end of last year. The crew recorded eight successful take-offs on the December 18, all without ever needing to touch a button.

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In a video released by the aerospace company test pilot Yann Beaufils and his co-pilot can be seen bravely sat at the controls which appear to be flying themselves.

The experimental autonomous test aircraft, an Airbus A350-1000. Photo / A. Doumenjou
The experimental autonomous test aircraft, an Airbus A350-1000. Photo / A. Doumenjou

Beufils who led the mission described the "milestone" test as going entirely to plan. The ex-Navy fighter pilot described the how, after clearance for takeoff, the aircraft's auto-pilot eerily performed his job for him:

"We moved the throttle levers to the take-off setting and we monitored the aircraft. It started to move and accelerate automatically maintaining the runway centre line, at the exact rotation speed as entered in the system. 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," he said.

A statement by Airbus said that rather than relying on a traditional Instrument Landing System, the modified A350-1000 aircraft uses visual recognition technology to scan the airspace.
As part of the company's ATTOL programme (Autonomous Taxi, Take-off and Landing) the final step is to achieve an autonomous landing.

Airbus shows off self-flying passenger plane.

Airbus shows off self-flying passenger plane. #FOCUSLIVE

Posted by nzherald.co.nz on Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Airbus aims to complete this next and most challenging part of pilot-free flight by the middle of this year.

Arguably the most difficult step of Airbus's automation programme will be after testing: finding paying passengers willing to take an automated jet plane.

A poll of Herald readers found that just 35 per-cent of air passengers were willing to put their air travel in the virtual hands of an autonomous plane.

Airbus says the aim of the project is not to move into pilot-free flights but to find potential in the technology to streamline air traffic and potential safety features.

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Airbus's statement insists that "pilots will remain at the heart of operations." However, with a growing pilot shortage and an increasingly expensive labour force – autonomous aircraft a vision of the future some aviation companies can't wait to see.