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Fall 2014 Vol. 14 Number 1



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The Future of Autonomous Flight

While drones have been used for years in military missions and intelligence gathering, the use of unmanned aircraft in the civilian world is on the verge of exploding for applications Unmanned aerial vehicle, photo courtesy ELIMCOranging from dusting crops to making movies to delivering packages. Regulatory approval for widespread commercial use of these aircraft in the United States is still pending, but some countries are already using unmanned aircraft extensively, particularly in agriculture.

Nearly all unmanned aircraft now in use operate under continuous human control, albeit remotely. But systems are also being developed that allow aircraft to adapt to changing conditions and determine how to handle situations without human intervention. In addition to guiding unmanned aircraft, these "increasingly autonomous" systems could be used in piloted aircraft and air traffic management systems to lessen the need for human monitoring and control of certain functions, with the goal of increasing safety and reducing costs.

Unmanned and increasingly autonomous aircraft have the potential to revolutionize civil aviation and could offer many benefits, says a new report from the National Research Council, but a number of barriers need to be overcome before these aircraft can be safely integrated into the U.S. civil aviation system.

One technological stumbling block is building unmanned and autonomous systems so that they are compatible with existing air traffic management systems. Barriers also exist in the realm of regulations and certification; for example, most existing safety standards are designed to ensure the safety of passengers and crew -- not a worry on unmanned aircraft, where the concern is how these aircraft might themselves endanger passengers in other planes and people on the ground. And before truly autonomous craft can safely take to the skies, more work needs to be done to develop and refine machine sensory, perceptual, and cognitive systems.

To surmount these and other hurdles, the report recommends a national research agenda, one to which government, industry, and academia can all make contributions. For example, for autonomous aircraft to operate for extended periods of time without real-time human oversight, their systems will need to perform certain critical functions currently provided by humans, such as detecting and avoiding obstacles and making decisions in emergency situations. Developing these systems successfully will depend on understanding how humans perform those functions now and translating them to the autonomous system, particularly for high-risk situations. Also on the recommended research agenda are the development of models to determine how autonomous designs perform under various conditions, as well as approaches to validate and certify autonomous aircraft before they can enter the aviation system.

-- Sara Frueh


Autonomy Research for Civil Aviation: Toward a New Era of Flight. Committee on Autonomy Research for Civil Aviation, Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2014, 95 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-30614-0; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $45.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The study committee was co-chaired by John-Paul Clarke, associate professor at the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, and John Lauber, private consultant. The study was funded by NASA.


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