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Someday you'll fly without a pilot

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What began as pilotless, robot aircraft for the military has graduated to a program designed to explore the feasibility of uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) sharing airspace with piloted civilian planes.

Recently, a Boeing subsidiary called Insitu was commissioned along with the New Jersey Air National Guard to explore the ways that UAVs could successfully share civilian skies.

Aviation experts see this as the first step towards the automated airliners of tomorrow--a feature of some speculative pulp fiction of the 1920s and the popular dream of many 20th Century futurists.

Across the pond, the UK has also embarked on a program researching the possibility of crewless commercial aircraft. Led by BAE Systems and EADS (the owner of European aircraft conglomerate Airbus), Astraea 2 seeks its own pathway to a pilotless future.

Advent of the UAV

Currently, airspace over North America and Europe is cleared for special UAV flights. The goal of the American and UK project is to eliminate the need to clear certain altitudes and vectors to accommodate pilotless craft.

According to the FAA and aircraft control officials, the ability of UAVs to fly without special restrictions will free up time and allow more frequent flights.

Expediency, however, is not taking a back seat to safety. The UAVs will have to be 'smart' aircraft with the ability to sense other planes, change altitude, speed and direction if needed, and execute evasive maneuvers if another aircraft approaches too closely.

All airliners and most cargo operations are linked into a computerized, co-operative network called the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). For UAV air traffic to operate efficiently and safely, they will have to be part of the system as well.

While the TCAS will work for many flights, some aircraft--especially private aviation craft--may not be linked into the system and therefore would give no electronic warning to the UAVs. To accommodate low profile aircraft, or silent planes, the team working on the UK Astraea 2 is creating multiple sensors such as micro-radars, infra-red detectors and high resolution, low light optical cameras to guarantee the detection of nearby aircraft.

Air cargo--then living, breathing passengers

Once remotely piloted craft are a normal part of air traffic, aviation researchers expect the next leap forward will carry pilotless aircraft into the air cargo business. Eventually, FedEx, UPS, DHL and the rest will operate mostly UAV cargo flights. Some see this happening before 2020.

Replacing airborne pilots with remote flight technicians on the ground can save hundreds of millions of dollars.

Mary Cummings at MIT is exploring methods of automating basic aviation systems. She explains, "The cargo airlines want very much to lose their pilots. The money that would be saved in salary and benefits, including retirement and health care costs, is pretty staggering."

Yet even reliable systems like the TCAS can sometimes fail. A TCAS failure worries people like system engineer Peter Ladkin whose field is safety-critical technological systems. "Flying UAVs in civilian airspace, and mandating safety devices for them and their airspace co-users, has large, maybe even overwhelming, political, legal and social dimensions," he said. "It is not just a technology issue."

Speaking from his offices at Beilefeld University in Germany, Ladkin emphasizes that fatalities from a system failure involving pilotless aircraft "would be profound."

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