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Roboplane tech can deal with air-traffic control directly

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Flying cars - or personal aircraft anyway - have moved a step nearer, as ongoing trials using robot aeroplanes and next-gen air traffic equipment in America are said to offer the option of "reduced crews" on commercial cargo flights.

US aerospace firm GE Aviation has been participating in joint trials with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) aimed at letting unmanned aircraft fly safely in civil controlled airspace, Flight International reports. An early option offered by the technology is the prospect of reduction from two pilots to one on commercial cargo flights.

The tests involved passing of traffic-control instructions to a Shadow roboplane, a type normally used by the US Army in warzones where civil rules and traffic aren't an issue. Generally, air-traffic controllers give instructions to pilots by voice: nowadays, rather than translating these instructions into action via joysticks, throttles etc the pilot will simply key commands into an automated flight management system (FMS).

The next logical step is to remove the needless waste of bandwidth inherent in voice comms and the error potential and delay that comes with an on-board human pilot and his fingers. Orders can be passed directly to the FMS - in this case, part of the Shadow's ground control station rather than on board, but with the same effect on the craft's manoeuvring.

"The precision of navigation in manoeuvres was much better than can be done by pilots in the cockpit," said GE's Craig Hoover, speaking of test flights last month.

GE's effort has as one of its goals the safe operation of unmanned aircraft in normal, regulated Western airspace as well as in combat zones. At the moment there are few technical obstacles to this, but substantial legal ones: so much so that some companies building surveillance aircraft offer "optionally manned" planes, quite capable of flying themselves where this is allowed but able to carry a pilot about with them should this be a legal requirement.

The new FMS for the Shadow is already FAA-approved - though at the moment a ground operator is required - and the ability to comply with air-traffic instructions is one of the hurdles that robot craft must jump before being allowed to fly above Europe and the States.

In the meantime, however, Hoover thinks that automated FMS kit would remove much of the remaining workload from commercial flight decks, which at the moment require two pilots on most aircraft.

Airline passengers are probably not going to want to fly with just one pilot in the immediate future, but Hoover thinks this would be perfectly feasible for other kinds of operation.

"You could think about having a single pilot in cargo aircraft," he tells Flight.

It's no doubt true that airline passengers would prefer to have pilots and copilots too. But there is also the issue of personal aircraft. At the moment, most such travellers must qualify as pilots themselves, which is expensive and difficult. Few have the time or resources to qualify for instrument flight, severely limiting the weather in which they can fly and the airspace they can pass through; then there's the danger associated with relying on a single pilot who isn't subject to rigorous commercial medical checks.

But automation of light aircraft has already produced kit which can land the plane safely should the pilot be incapacitated - the so-called "digital parachute" option. Navigation is simple and precise in these satellite days. Autopilots laugh at weather and visibility.

Compliance with air-traffic regimes has been the one remaining problem for a plane flying itself; but it would seem that even this may soon be solved, and a modern light-aircraft autopilot may need no help at all to carry out an entire flight at least a safely as an instrument-rated human private pilot could do it.

Of course, a light aircraft still wouldn't be a flying car: it can't drive on roads, can't land or take off vertically, and it's too noisy to do so in urban areas anyway.

But some of these problems too are in hand. And the prospect of being able to travel in one's light aircraft without needing to learn how to fly it and without having to fuss about visibility and controlled airspace is an interesting one.

Meanwhile in the nearer future, airline passengers will perhaps welcome the arrival of automated FMS remote-controllable from the ground - as having pilots aboard is evidently no guarantee that air-traffic instructions will be complied with. ®

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