The final stage will be to remove the human control altogether. To do, that planes will have to be capable of complex decision making. “The plane has to know its position, its current state, where it’s going, what the winds are, its orientation, that kind of thing,” says Davis. “You’re going to need continuous health monitors to know when your systems are degrading. And it’s not only avoiding collisions, but it’s also not causing collisions.” In other words, a plane will need to be aware of its surroundings and be able to plot a new path that is not disruptive to other users of the skies - intelligence known as “sense and avoid”.
This is currently the pilot’s job, who can look at radar and even glance out of the window. But machine vision is not easy and requires video-cameras, sensors and powerful computers to interpret what they were seeing in real time.
But progress is being made in this area. You only need to look at the rise of the autonomous car to see that computers are getting better and better at viewing an interpreting their surroundings.
Current UAVs – even those controlled by a pilot – also already have some sense-and-avoid capability, to account for the tiny lag between an operator sending an instruction and it being delivered to a plane. Professor Cummings believes that capability is only going to get bigger. . “In the aircraft that we have today, there is a lot of decision making on the ground about what to do next. In autonomous aircraft, much of the decision making is made onboard, by the aircraft.”
Dr John Tracey, chief technology officer at Boeing, agrees. He sees no need for decisions to always be made on the ground by Air traffic Control.
“The current Air Traffic Management System (ATM) we have is based on 1950s technology,” he told me at a recent technology summit in Silicon Valley. “It’s based on the assumption that the airplane does not know where it is, cannot figure out how to go from where it is to where is needs to be, that is doesn’t know where anyone else is, and that the purpose of ATM is to keep planes separated. Those are all false.”
He believes the current system based on ground based radar, and a controller who uses voice commands to “say to the pilot ‘turn left, turn right, go up, go down,’” is very inefficient.
“The new planes that we deliver already have the capabilities built into them to use GPS satellites, to allow them to fly on the most optimum flight path,” Dr Tracy says.
The next step would be to allow aircraft to make more decisions for themselves and respond to other planes and weather patterns by themselves.
Safety in numbers
Of course, some communication with the aircraft will still be vital – certainly in the early days - and planes will have to be able to communicate with each other. And, this could be a major challenge, says Doug Davis as more of the airwaves are assigned to other uses such as mobile phone networks. “One of the underbellies of unmanned aircraft technology is available frequency spectrum,” he says. “If we don’t have enough spectrum for command and control it is going to cause a lot of problems for our bandwidth needs for the future.”