Although sometimes used interchangeably, automation and autonomy are not synonymous. The difference can be summarised as follows:
Two very different paths can be taken to achieve a fully autonomous aircraft:
In ‘autonomous’ flight, the aircraft has to be able to make decisions and react to unforeseen events without the pilot’s intervention.
Arne Stoschek, Project Wayfinder, A^3 by Airbus
Using the fall-back pilot enables the aircraft to become airborne more quickly, but it requires significant investment in systems that will, ultimately, not be needed. Starting with full autonomy eliminates the need for human-machine interfaces, but obtaining certification and public acceptance can be a challenge.
Some manufacturers, like Airbus, are already taking the latter option: new urban air mobility vehicles like Vahana have been designed to integrate self-piloting functionalities from the start. This is because flying taxi missions involve short, point-to-point flights along a restricted selection of routes using limited landing infrastructure, thus making urban air vehicles an ideal choice for testing self-piloting operations in aircraft. Although the technology is still not mature enough to transport passengers, autonomy in aircraft operations will undoubtedly be shaped by self-piloting, flying taxi demonstrators like Vahana.
Vahana – an innovative all-electric, single-seat, tilt-wing vehicle demonstrator from Airbus’ Silicon Valley outpost, A3 – is advancing the concept of self-piloted vertical-take-off-and-landing flightRead more
Why is it important to distinguish between automated and autonomous?
There’s often some confusion between the two, but as autonomy becomes increasingly important, we need to make sure we avoid this. “Automated” refers to a set of prescribed actions. In flight, these actions are triggered by a pilot, such as automated landing. So, the pilot initiates it and the aircraft then executes it. In “autonomous” flight, however, the aircraft has to be able to make decisions and react to unforeseen events without the pilot’s intervention.
If the objective of self-driving cars is to drastically reduce vehicle accidents and improve safety on the road, what is the objective of self-piloting air vehicles?
Self-piloting technology in aircraft addresses two main topics. One is the predicted pilot shortage, and the other is safety improvement. Air traffic is expected to double in the next 20 years, which would require around 700,000 new pilots. That’s a huge number! Autonomy would certainly reduce that burden. Secondly, the aviation industry has one of the best safety records in the world, and autonomous technologies could help us to further improve the safety of aircraft. With our track record of safety, Airbus is ideally positioned to drive autonomous technologies for urban air mobility with a strong emphasis on safety.
Why are urban air vehicles an excellent option for rolling out self-piloting aircraft operations?
With urban air mobility, we have a blank slate to design a safe and efficient autonomy system from the very beginning. Imagine getting into a flying taxi and being given a dedicated starting time, lane and speed that will take you from A to B in the shortest time possible with the highest level of safety and energy efficiency. That’s what we’re developing for urban air mobility.