They call it the autonomous aeroplane. An aircraft which can be navigated around the world independently of any ground navigation aid and which, rather less easily, can return to earth anywhere in any weather. Technically the concept is a practicable one. Whether it will be coming to an airport near you by 2005 rather depends on where you are.

The visionaries behind the idea hold out the prospect of pilots taking their aircraft airborne in near-zero visibility, relying for guidance on infra-red or high-resolution radar images projected onto a head-up display. Once airborne, the global positioning system will provide unprecedented navigational accuracy in three dimensions without the need for ground-based navigation aids.

GPS will see the aircraft back to within a mile of the runway and down to below 1,000ft - whether it will take aircraft any further is the subject of ferocious debate. If GPS does not cover the remaining portion then it will be back to infra-red or radar to touchdown.

All of this has, more or less, been done experimentally already. Unfortunately, the desired autonomy is under grave threat. While the aircraft may be independent of ground aids, they cannot escape the clutches of air traffic control systems.

The authorities may be prepared to see pilots depart into whatever murk they are prepared to tackle; and they may even grant them the desired leeway in pioneering poor weather approaches at ill-equipped airports. That will all help airlines' bottom lines.

But the real benefits of the new technology will accrue only when ATC shifts conceptually from today's 'positive control' towards allowing 'free flight'. Under that regime, crews would plan their routes and select their desired altitudes largely without restriction to take advantage of good weather conditions.

ATC would intervene only to detect and prevent conflicts - and even then in a much less disruptive way than now. There are small moves towards this in the US already and it will gradually become the norm in oceanic airspace. However, in Europe's choked skies the prospects are not as good.

The chances of any truly new aircraft emerging by 2005 are receding daily, but should one do so then the technical possibilities in its cockpit are enormous. There is no prospect whatever of pilotless flight, but the introduction of artificial intelligence to help humans is perfectly conceivable.

The superior pilot, the saying goes, is one who uses his superior judgement to avoid situations that would require the use of his superior skills. It is becoming apparent that computers which mimic human thought processes could have a role to play sitting quietly at the back of the cockpit watching for emerging difficulties.

Endlessly alert and unafraid to speak up when needed, computers could well do a much better job than humans would of monitoring the integrated system that the modern aircraft has become. The computer, suggest some avionics engineers, could avoid those difficult situations before they arise. In 2005, a synthesised-voice remark may be heard on the flight deck: 'Excuse me captain, I wonder if I might suggest . . .'

Source: Airline Business