back to article BAE Systems' autonomous research aircraft flies itself to Scotland

An autonomous aeroplane that uses onboard cameras to "see" events around it is being tested by BAE Systems. The modified Jetstream 31 aircraft operates from BAE's base at Warton and normally flies with two pilots aboard, who are in charge of takeoffs and landings. Building on previous research and development work which took …

  1. BenR

    Maybe this is me being dumb...

    ... but having read this article three times now (and please take due account of Monday Afternoon Syndrome!), i'm struggling to see how this is anything other than an alternative input system for autopilot? Rather than using weather radar, it uses a weather camera instead?

    Or am i missing some bafflingly-obvious distinction?

    1. Dom 3

      Re: Maybe this is me being dumb...

      "Introducing computers at the command stage – deciding where the aircraft should go as well as the precise mechanics of how it gets there" .

      1. Stoneshop Silver badge
        WTF?

        Re: Maybe this is me being dumb...

        "Introducing computers at the command stage – deciding where the aircraft should go as well as the precise mechanics of how it gets there" .

        So, once these systems are introduced on commercial flights, you can suddenly find yourself on Svalbard because the computer decided it wanted to view the northern lights, instead of your planned Mediterranean holiday?

        And your luggage will end up somewhere else entirely, but that's nothing new.

    2. 2+2=5 Silver badge

      Re: Maybe this is me being dumb...

      I think you're supposed to infer from the following line

      > A ground control station, commanded by a qualified pilot, supervises the autonomous phase of each flight.

      that the system is a precursor to a fully automated passenger plane with no pilot on board. Eventually the pilot would be on the ground i.e. a military-style drone operator rather than an actual pilot for the whole flight. At the moment, though, I'm assuming they have the on-board pilots in control during the take off and landing, and hand over to the ground controller during the main bit of the flight.

      1. BenR

        Re: Maybe this is me being dumb...

        So fancy AI drone, albeit one that still requires a supervisory pilot for autonomous ops, and presumably needs a pilot for take-off and landing?

        I can see a benefit for military applications where it removes crew risk on iffy missions.

        Struggling to see the point in commercial operations though.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Maybe this is me being dumb...

          "Struggling to see the point in commercial operations though."

          Two extra paying seats you can charge a huge premium for?

          Or, slightly more realistic, no cockpit so a couple of extra rows of seats and no expensive pilots wages and hotel layover costs. win/win for the airlines.

    3. Captain DaFt

      Re: Maybe this is me being dumb...

      "Or am i missing some bafflingly-obvious distinction?"

      British company makes autonomous aeroplane.

      It immediately buggers off to Scotland.

  2. MrSmith

    But could this land on the Hudson?

    1. Arthur the cat Silver badge
      Trollface

      But could this land on the Hudson?

      No, because it's based in the UK and has a maximum range that wouldn't get it across the Atlantic.

    2. Anonymous Blowhard

      "But could this land on the Hudson?"

      Maybe, maybe not, but would it also decide to fly without the correct amount of fuel?

      1. druck Silver badge

        The Hudson ditching was due to bird strikes taking out both engines.You might be thinking of the Colombian crash, if you are thinking at all.

        1. IDoNotThinkSo

          I'm guessing the point was that, yes, a human pilot can make a split second decision to land on the Hudson and pull that off, but a human pilot can also decide to press on without enough contingency fuel and crash into a mountainside. Or just decide to crash into a mountainside for the hell of it.

          So just because an autopilot can't land on the Hudson (if that's even true) doesn't mean that it wouldn't be better overall.

        2. Anonymous Blowhard

          "The Hudson ditching was due to bird strikes taking out both engines.You might be thinking of the Colombian crash, if you are thinking at all."

          I'm definitely thinking; and what I'm thinking is that, yes, humans can use their skill and initiative to get out of a potentially disastrous situation, as Captain Sullenberger did, but human motivations and emotions can interfere with the decision making process and end up creating the disasters.

          Captain Francesco Schettino admitted that he was trying to "impress passengers" when he steered the Costa Concordia too close to Giglio, sinking the ship and killing 32 people.

          I'm sure that Miguel Quiroga, pilot of the aircraft and partner in the airline, had his own reasons for flying without an adequate fuel reserve but in the end his poor judgement, not a mechanical failure, has killed 71 people.

          With humans there are inconsistencies, with heroes like Chesley Sullenberger at one end of the scale and villains like Francesco Schettino and Miguel Quiroga at the other; replacing men with machines is only going to happen for valid safety reasons, when it's absolutely clear that, statistically, machines can operate more safely than people. I say "statistically" because there will always be edge cases where a machine won't perform as well as the best humans can, but statistically, when things go wrong, you'll be extremely lucky if there's a Chesley Sullenberger at the controls.

          1. druck Silver badge

            Yes people are fallible when in control of aircraft or other forms of transport, but so are the people who design the software for automated vehicles. The difference being that if there is a human in the loop they can try to use their human ingenuity to try to avert disaster, if the computer is in control and the situation hasn't been thought of during the design process, there is no hope.

    3. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      But could this land on the Hudson?

      Landing on the Hudson would probably be easy for a computer to do.

      Making the decision to land on the Hudson, however, is probably the hard part, though.

      1. Gordon JC Pearce

        #!/usr/bin/python

        from fuckit import whynot

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      It wouldn't have flown into a mountain because it was having a bad day.

  3. Natalie Gritpants Silver badge

    Is it me?

    I see phrases like "systems technology" and "electronic eye" and I think the 1960s are back.

    One more thing, if their electronic eye is meant to detect cloud and route around it the plane will never get to Inverness.

    1. Dom 3

      Re: Is it me?

      Talking of 1960s - that's when the first fully automatic landing in revenue service took place. So I don't know what "modern autopilot systems are more than capable of flying instrument approaches up to the final few tens of feet above the runway" is all about.

      1. W4YBO

        Re: Is it me?

        @Dom 3

        "So I don't know what "modern autopilot systems are more than capable of flying instrument approaches up to the final few tens of feet above the runway" is all about."

        Agreed. I thought the most modern autopilots just kept pilots in the cockpit for ground operations (taxiing, parking, lining up center runway for takeoff, etc.) and emergencies, and autopilot pretty much takes care of everything from wheels up to touchdown.

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: Is it me?

          Cat IIIc autolands only on Cat IIIc equipped runways. Although the aircraft are capable of landing and roll out, the pilots like to have the manual landings on their logbooks and so the first officer will usually do it.

          1. Dom 3

            Re: Is it me?

            A) Who landed the plane doesn't always go in the logbook B) standard practice is to take turns.

            IANAP.

        2. Adam 52 Silver badge

          Re: Is it me?

          Also includes some cameras for looking outside for non-transponder traffic, which TCAS can't do...

          ... "noise abatement" as the joke goes.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Is it me?

      If the plane avoids clouds, then anyone thats ever been for a break to Lytham near Warton will testify that the plane may never take off due to the constant cloud cover...

  4. Kubla Cant Silver badge
    Headmaster

    BAE described this process as follows: "The testbed contains an aircraft identification antennae..."

    Let's hope their avionics are better than their grammar: "an antennae" is "an aerials" in English.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Maybe it's just a sort of insect-like antenna with a flag or pennant attached to let people know who owns the aircraft. They did, after all confuse us, implying singular by using "an" then using the plural form "antennae", so maybe it's not actually radio related at all and is just decorative. Do we know if it's painted with black and yellow stripes?

  5. ma1010
    Boffin

    Probably easier to do than autonomous car driving

    Given that other aircraft do have transponders (unlike cars, trucks, pedestrians, animals, trees, etc.) and the sky is less crowded then most urban roads, I'd expect it would be much easier to create self-flying aircraft than self-driving cars or trucks.

    Personally, I think it will be a while before they can really come up with safe self-driving cars. I'd expect to see practical autonomous aircraft sooner than autonomous cars.

    Another poster asked could such a plane land on the Hudson Thames? Well, quite possibly yes. Any competent pilot has emergency landing locations in mind at all times, and I'd expect an autonomous aircraft to be programmed accordingly. The key difficulty I'd see there is avoiding other objects (especially small boats or flotsam) on the water or, in the case of a highway landing, vehicles on the roadway -- much the same problems facing autonomous road vehicles, and problems aircraft rarely face. But perhaps it can be done properly. Time will tell.

    1. Lusty

      Re: Probably easier to do than autonomous car driving

      " I think it will be a while before they can really come up with safe self-driving cars"

      What's your yardstick here? Self driving cars are already safer than human driven cars, the main issue right now is the humans around the self driving cars!

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Probably easier to do than autonomous car driving

        "the main issue right now is the humans around the self driving cars!"

        Since the meatbags currently outnumber the robots by billions to one, then the robots will have to work within the system.

    2. Dr Scrum Master

      Re: Probably easier to do than autonomous car driving

      Given that other aircraft do have transponders

      Except the ones that don't, such as balloons, which also have priority as far as navigation is concerned.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Probably easier to do than autonomous car driving

        "Except the ones that don't, such as balloons"

        Balloons frequently do. They're also slow moving and hard to miss.

        Other aircraft (particularly if flying more-or-less directly at you) are small against a large sky and _very_ difficult to see (personal experience).

        That said - fully automated aviation is much easier than fully automated cars, which is why it's already been around for a long time in large transport. Pilots won't admit it, but they've been mostly superfluous for decades and having monkeys at the controls has caused more crashes than it's prevented.

    3. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Probably easier to do than autonomous car driving

      It might even be able to see/avoid a flock of geese or other birds large enough to stop the engines in the first place.

  6. Your alien overlord - fear me

    And when a kid

    shines a laser into the electronic eye, then what?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: And when a kid

      It switches to the backup eye, and fires a frickin' big laser back at the kid.

      1. Marcelo Rodrigues
        Trollface

        Re: And when a kid

        "It switches to the backup eye, and fires a frickin' big laser back at the kid."

        With a shark on its head!

        No, wait...

        1. AndGregor
          Go

          Re: And when a kid

          No respectable shark would leave the cabin without a tornado nearby..

    2. phuzz Silver badge
      Terminator

      Re: And when a kid

      >>>>>>>>

      You piss off one robot, you piss off all the robots.

  7. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    IT Angle

    Indeed "Autoland" dates from 1968 IIRC?

    Due to the strict reliability requirement (1 failure in 1 billion hrs of operation, although I'd guess the landing portion of a flight takes no more than about 10 mins) no actual processor in site. Not even sure if it was all analouge.

    Of course that was before WAIS and differential GPS put accuracy in the cm range.

  8. Mage Silver badge

    Hmm

    I'd trust this more than an autonomous car.

  9. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Some catching up

    I think some other chappies managed to get an aircraft to take off from France and fly unaided to London where it "landed"about 70years ago.

    1. Korev Silver badge

      Re: Some catching up

      Most people in IT wait until V3 before rolling anything out though...

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Some catching up

        >Most people in IT wait until V3 before rolling anything out though..

        I assume that's why they skipped the V0

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Some catching up

      There were slightly fewer aircraft to dodge back then, and it probably didn't have to worry about stacking up in a holding patter, ATC strikes or baggage handler strikes :-)

  10. Barrie Shepherd

    Accident Investigation?

    If, in the unlikely event the plane does crash, will the computer system be cross examined by the accident investigators and dragged before the courts? :-)

    1. SkippyBing

      Re: Accident Investigation?

      Accident Investigators don't cross examine aircrew post accident, they merely question them. Accident investigation is about preventing re-occurrence, not apportioning blame. The CPS have occasionally gone to court to attempt to get interview transcripts and other evidence from the AAIB and lost their case as it's seen that this could lead to aircrew refusing to talk to the AAIB after an accident and important safety lessons not being learnt.

      I'll take my hobby horse away now...

    2. JeffyPoooh
      Pint

      Re: Accident Investigation?

      I came to the comments section to point out that they've almost certainly failed to foresee the requirement for a Crash-Worthy AI-Pilot Data Recorder, likely requiring several TB of storage (which is easy these days), to record the "thoughts' and "assumptions" of the AI system.

  11. Blitheringeejit
    Boffin

    I'm looking forward to ...

    ...the cabin announcements.

    "This is your captain speaking. I'd like to welcome you aboard this autonomous flight, and reassure anyone who is worrying because I talk like Stephen Hawking, that I'm actually even more intelligent than he is, so you are perfectly safe.

    I'm afraid that takeoff is slightly delayed while we await a delivery of lemon-soaked paper napkins for your comfort and enjoyment - but in the meantime, please enjoy the complimentary drinks and snacks which the cabin droids will shortly bring round.

    Oh, and before anyone asks, I'm afraid that I cannot open the pod bay doors, even if your name is Dave. Sorry.

    Captain out."

    1. magickmark
      Thumb Up

      Re: I'm looking forward to ...

      I think its amazing that Douglas Adams saw this as a problem back in the late 70/early 80's and made comments about it in his work, have an up vote.

  12. MT Field

    How far would I trust it?

    About as far as I would trust the rest of BAE Systems - that great pork-guzzling juggernaut of non-delivery.

  13. RPF

    Just 2 words: Embedded Cumulonimbus.

    Now sort claiming you can deliver (like you know, AEW Nimrod), BAe bull-shitters.

  14. Daedalus Silver badge

    Smart plane, dumb passengers

    This still won't stop people getting on the plane for Panama City, Florida instead of Panama City, Panama. Or was it the other way round? See also Granada/Grenada, Naples/Naples etc. etc. etc.

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