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Airbus is one step closer to pilotless commercial flights

Toulouse, France - Airbus seems to be one step closer to launching the pilotless commercial flights. The manufacturer revealed the pictures of one of its passenger jets testing computer-controlled autonomous takeoffs.

The tests were conducted at the Toulouse Blagnac airport on December 18 with an A350-1000. Two pilots monitored the takeoffs and were ready to take over if needed. Airbus said eight takeoffs were carried out for testing purposes.

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 centerline, 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,

said Airbus Test Pilot Captain Yann Beaufils.

Auto-takeoff-test-A350-900
<font color="blue"An Airbus test pilot is shown with one hand at rest as an A350-1000 takes off automatically at Toulouse-Blagnac airport on December 18, 2019.

The technology behind the automatic takeoff is different from the Instrument Landing System (ILS) currently performed by modern jets.

The system is using image recognition technology installed directly on the aircraft. Airbus says the next step is to test automatic vision-based landing and taxi sequences by mid-2020.

Autopilot takeoff is an important milestone for Airbus' Autonomous Taxi, Take-Off & Landing (ATTOL) project intended as the first stage of AI (Artificial Intelligence) controlled pilotless commercial flights.

However, two crashes involving the Boeing 737 MAX in late 2018 and early last year, have raised questions about the future of automation in commercial flights.

MCAS, the stall prevention system of the 737 MAX series jets, repeatedly pushed down the nose of the aircraft due to the faulty AOA (Angle of Attack) data and caused two 737 MAX 8 jets to crash within five months.

But the industry is keen to materialize pilotless flights in the near future to lower their operating costs.

In a research paper published by Swiss bank UBS, the institution has claimed that a pilot is typically in full control of a passenger plane for an average of just 7 minutes on each flight.

UBS also predicted that single-pilot commercial and cargo flights could take place in five years.

The report says the shift to one operating pilot in the cockpit would lead up to a $15 billion saving in annual pilot, training, fuel and insurance costs.

But one survey conducted by UBS in 2017 uncovered that 63% of air travelers are not eager to fly with a pilotless aircraft.