How do Pilotless Planes Work

WITH ALL THE hype surrounding Google’s driverless cars, you may not have heard of something even more remarkable: the pilotless plane. Technology being developed by BAE Systems could mean that one day it won’t matter if your pilot nods off during a flight.

The system needed to do this has been put through its paces over the Irish Sea. Integrated into a small passenger plane called (somewhat uninspiringly) ‘The Flying Testbed’, the technology, together with satellite communications, can do far more than your typical autopilot. While an autopilot can keep a plane on a level, accurate flight path and perform a landing, the new system is able to think for itself.

The technology could be used in an emergency situation when the crew have been rendered unconscious, for instance. However, there are currently no plans to commercialize the system.

Pilotless PlanesUsing a camera mounted in the cockpit and a bank of computers in the tail, the aircraft can detect different cloud types before plotting evasive action if necessary – a world first. Similarly, the ‘brain’ of the plane has ‘sense and avoid’ technology, using its Aircraft Identification Antenna to pick up aircraft transponder signals.

If it doesn’t pick up a signal, the camera is used to make visual contact before the computer plots a safe course.

Finally, if you were to find yourself in the brace position, you’re in safe hands. The aircraft is able to use an infrared camera mounted underneath, as well as its antenna, to detect a suitable landing site.

Article Pilotless aircraft: This is your ground pilot speaking  on

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