Travel and Tourism

How autonomous aircraft could make flying safer, easier to access and more sustainable

While the concept of autonomous aircraft may sit uneasily with some people, it is important to think in terms of how autonomy can augment human capabilities in aviation – and vice versa – rather than replacing them.

While the concept of autonomous aircraft may sit uneasily with some people, it is important to think in terms of how autonomy can augment human capabilities in aviation – and vice versa – rather than replacing them. Image: Pexels/Ahmed Muntasir

David Hyde
Lead, Autonomous Systems, World Economic Forum
Jia Xu
Chief Executive Officer, SkyGrid
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  • Advanced Air Mobility, which includes technologies like more autonomous aircraft, is ushering in the most significant change to aviation since the advent of the jet age over 70 years ago.
  • Using autonomy in aviation could enhance safety, expand access and avoid humans having to perform dangerous and dull jobs.
  • Realizing the potential of autonomy calls for a multistakeholder effort, which is why the World Economic Forum is launching the Advancing AViation Innovation and Autonomous Technology for Everyone (AVIATE) initiative.

After years of anticipation and persistent progress from industry, we finally stand on the cusp of realizing the potential of Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) – a new transportation concept that uses innovative aircraft designs and flight technologies to move people and cargo and perform services more efficiently. In doing so, it will usher in the most significant change to aviation since the advent of the jet age over 70 years ago. Advances in electric propulsion, battery storage, advanced manufacturing and autonomy will enable aircraft to fly new types of missions that will be transformative for people, places, and economies.

Urban Air Mobility is arguably the AAM use-case that has most captured the imagination, with the promise of moving people and goods within and between populated areas. At the recent Paris Airshow, the skies buzzed with electric vertical and take-off and landing (eVTOL) air taxis, which offered a preview of the vehicles that are set to transport passengers during the Olympics next year.

Beyond the excitement surrounding initial operations, it is important to note that AAM’s impact on our lives will grow gradually. The first such air-taxi services will be limited in numbers, and will likely be restricted to “premium journeys,” making them an unlikely everyday transportation option for most people. For this technology to become more accessible, we need solutions that can scale the number of aircraft and drones flying over a city from a few dozen to hundreds or even thousands. This will necessitate increased automation and digitization of the air traffic control system, and greater autonomy of the aircraft – including the deployment of remotely supervised, autonomous aircraft.

Have you read?

The World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council of Autonomous Mobility, in which Honeywell participates, looks at the different challenges involved in the responsible development and deployment of autonomous mobility – both on the ground and in the sky.

Autonomous aircraft: The next big thing in aviation?

While the concept of autonomous aircraft may sit uneasily with some people, it is important to think in terms of how autonomy can augment human capabilities in aviation – and vice versa – rather than replacing them. Today, many aircraft functions are already automated, with high precision and integrity autopilots and flight control systems guiding planes through the skies along carefully planned routes, often without much human intervention. Onboard automation coupled with the right space and ground-based positioning and communication infrastructures are also capable of routinely landing widebody airliners safely in challenging, zero-visibility conditions.

As autonomous capabilities progress, routine aviation tasks, such as monitoring onboard systems functions, conforming to simple air traffic control instructions, and separation management, will become increasingly automated – alleviating pilots from operational burdens and reducing the risk posed by human error and fatigue. Pilots, even if they are not in the vehicle, will ultimately remain in control, and all of the different elements of the system, including the onboard autonomous technology, the command and control system, the surveillance and communication infrastructure, and the remote pilot-to-machine interface, will be meticulously designed and integrated to close the aircraft safety case.

This new combination of human and machine can help usher in a new age of safer, more efficient and more accessible aviation. Autonomy will not be limited to air taxis; there are a diverse number of use cases that increased autonomy will enable. At Honeywell’s Second Annual Advanced Air Mobility Conference, leaders from the industry and government gathered to exchange ideas on realizing the dream of AAM. Companies at the vanguard of aviation autonomy presented their perspectives on how autonomous flight can substantially enhance safety, expand access to underserved communities, and replace humans in dangerous, dirty and dull jobs.

Many of these applications also represent early opportunities that allow more limited autonomous flight systems to be fielded rapidly to create impact and economic value today. For example, autonomous drones are already being used to assist in search and rescue efforts and assess critical infrastructure, and these could soon be complemented by larger autonomous aircraft for firefighting or agricultural purposes – which are some of the most dangerous jobs pilots do today. And while commercial airliners may never become fully autonomous, opportunities abound to simplify, automate and backup pilot functions to make aviation safer, more cost-effective, and therefore more accessible to communities that cannot today be viably served by existing routes.

An autonomous drone assists in search and rescue efforts.
Autonomous drones are already being used to assist in search and rescue efforts. Image: REUTERS

Realizing the potential of autonomy calls for a collaborative effort involving all stakeholders in the aviation community – manufacturers, operators, pilots and regulators – as well as the general public, who will ultimately need to vote with their wallets by putting their confidence in these machines. While there are different views amongst industry about the pace and extent to which we will see autonomy emerge within aviation, there is overwhelming agreement that safety must always be the paramount objective. Autonomy should pay its way onto the aircraft because of safety improvements. The aviation sector has a long history of working together to advance safety to the impressive levels we see today, and multistakeholder collaboration will be critical to ensuring a seamless transition to a future that embraces the potential of autonomous flight.

Recognizing this, the World Economic Forum is launching the Advancing AViation Innovation and Autonomous Technology for Everyone (AVIATE) initiative. This global effort will help stakeholders prepare for and accelerate the realization of the benefits of autonomous aviation and ensure its responsible adoption. AVIATE will bring together relevant stakeholders from industry, government, academia and civil society to shed light on key issues related to autonomous aviation and help shape a safer, more accessible and sustainable aviation ecosystem that works for everyone.

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