AI will fly our planes sooner than you think

There’s a good reason people don’t trust self-driving cars: they can sometimes be a bit unreliable. At the moment, that is. The press is as much to blame for this distrust as the self-driving cars themselves: while a lot of progress has been made with them (that’s not covered in the news), it’s the crashes they are involved in make the headlines.

Artificial intelligence has been around for quite some time but it’s far from perfect. Its role in our everyday lives is increasing – it is talking to us when we order something online or when we ask a question at our bank’s online support. Imperfect as it is, AI is shaping the way we interact with businesses and what ads we see online, AI even shapes online roulette and the games we play in our spare time. And soon, perhaps sooner than you think, it will fly our planes, too.

More than just autopilot

Autopilot – not Tesla’s semi-self-driving software but the one used in aviation – is not a new invention. Rudimentary variants of the system were used as early as 1912, and it has become more complex and self-sufficient over the years. Still, it can’t fly a plane on its own – it merely takes over certain tasks and needs constant supervision from a pilot. Tesla’s Autopilot feature is, in many ways, similar – that makes the choice for its name the perfect one.

A self-flying plane will have to do more than just level the craft to the horizon and maintain throttle – and it will have to do it on its own.

And the AI guiding an airplane on its own has to be perfect. When self-driving cars screw up, only a few people – if any – can be hurt. When a self-driving plane does the same, the effects can be potentially disastrous. And let’s not even go into the security of these system.

Work in progress

There are currently at least two companies working on self-driving planes as we speak – and both of them are making progress.

European aerospace giant Airbus has made the headlines this June with its A350-1000 XWB outfitted with a brand new piece of software. The plane was able to taxi (drive around the airport on its own wheels), take off, and land on its own, with the existing autopilot taking care of the rest. The plane was able to do so with the help of its onboard cameras, without relying on any human assistance.

Big names are, in turn, not the only ones trying to teach airplanes to fly on their own. California-based startup Reliable Robotics, founded by former Tesla engineering manager Robert Rose, started teaching a Cessna 172 – a popular choice for pilot training and the general aviation – to taxi, take off, and land on its own, and now it’s working on a slightly bigger plane, a Cessna 208 turboprop cargo aircraft.

Self-flying planes may sound like science fiction today but they will become real perhaps sooner than you think. While they may not make very much of a difference in large-scale commercial air travel, they will be incredibly useful if you scale down – think small, autonomous flying taxis or flying buses and, why not, autonomous personal “flying cars”.

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