Airbus Tests Autonomous Flight Diversions, Taxiway Support

 - January 12, 2023, 7:45 AM
For its DragonFly project, Airbus UpNext has fit three external cameras to an A350-1000 for flight testing. (Image: Airbus)

Airbus UpNext is accelerating work on autonomous flight systems aimed at improving operational safety and efficiency. Using an A350-1000 widebody airliner, the Airbus research and development division will now conduct further flight testing mainly focused on automatic flight diversion and landing in the event of an emergency and assistance for pilots in navigating very complex taxiways at the busiest airports.

In a January 12 media briefing on the DragonFly project, which started initial flight testing in July 2022, Airbus UpNext explained that work continuing this year will deal with tasks such as maturing the computer vision algorithms needed to support the landing and taxi assistance processes. Project engineers fit the A350 with three external cameras just below the flight deck windscreen and are considering what sensors deployment on commercial airliners would need to achieve regulatory approval.

By early December, the Airbus UpNext team had achieved full functionality for the system, which also includes advanced UHF and VHF communications systems. It already has conducted flights in cooperation with specially-trained French air traffic controllers, including a simulated medical emergency on a flight across southwestern France in which the aircraft diverted to Toulouse on a flight to Lyon.

According to Isabelle Lacaze, head of the DragonFly demonstrator program, the technology is being developed with dual pilot operations in mind. She played down suggestions from reporters that the work might be part of a longer-term progression to support the case for single-pilot airline operations, and said that early results already have shown the potential for “huge value in helping pilots deal with the very complex situations they face today.”

In considering the scope for assistance with taxiing, Lacaze said that at the world’s most congested hub airports, pilots face what she described as one of the most challenging phases of flight in navigating complex taxiway networks to get from the runway to the gate while not disrupting the constant flow of landings and takeoffs.

The system being tested by Airbus UpNext shows pilots a clear path along taxiways with each clearance given by air traffic controllers, including permitted speeds. It also includes surveillance to detect obstacles and avoid the risk of crossing live runways, giving audio alerts to pilots. Those processes have already undergone testing in real-time operating conditions at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport.

When medical emergencies arise, the DragonFly technology can automatically select the most suitable airport and flight path for a diversion, dealing with factors such as terrain and weather. The system can operate fully autonomously or serve as a decision-making tool for the flight crew while alerting both the airline’s operations control centers and air traffic controllers using synthetic voice systems.

Some of the further work planned for 2023 will focus on building a database of runway approaches. “The tests in 2022 were very promising and this year we want to finalize the flight test campaign and then give our conclusions and recommendations to Airbus for the next steps,” Lacaze said. Those next steps will include the development of a concept for operations in cooperation with aviation safety regulators and air traffic controllers, as well as with airline customers and their pilots.

Airbus UpNext has been developing the DragonFly technology to react in just a few seconds when a need for an emergency response arises. The company said that another Airbus project centers on how exactly the aircraft’s systems can recognize when a pilot has become incapacitated, but it noted it cannot yet share details of that proprietary work.

“Inspired by biomimicry, the systems being tested have been designed to identify features in the landscape that enables an aircraft to ‘see’ and safely maneuver autonomously within its surroundings in the same way that dragonflies are known to have the ability to recognize landmarks,” Lacaze explained.

Several other Airbus subsidiaries, including Acubed and the Defence & Space division, support the Dragon Fly project. Other program partners include Cobham, Collins Aerospace, Honeywell, Onera, and Thales. The work has received some funding from the French aviation regulator DGAC.