United and future: Autonomous planes in the air

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption They have the potential to cut flying costs and increase passenger numbers

Have you ever wondered about the future of air travel? Many big brands are already testing the waters of merging larger passenger and cargo fleets.

Europe’s largest airline, Ryanair, announced earlier this year that it was talking to Swiss tech firm, Dassault Falcon, about developing a major podding operation.

Royal Dutch Airlines has agreed to purchase 60 of these Ultra Light Jets (ULJ) which are much lighter and smaller than regular aircraft.

In 2010 the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) also invested $70m (£51m) in Ilyushin Finance, a Russian state-owned corporation which holds a majority stake in UTair, the world’s largest light jet manufacturer.

As with all of these mega-deals, the winners will not come from the bean counters in the boardrooms, but from some of the most amazing innovations taking place in the aerospace industry.

Three pilotless jet planes are already in testing. Flight trials of the UTM have taken place in Russia as well as Norway, with the first complete flight expected later this year.

The UTM could be a game changer. They come in both turboprop and turboprop/aircraft.

Unlike the regular JSF fighters, no aircraft pilot will be required on the 2CV UTM as its wing is suspended from the ground.

Autonomous flight takes place above and within the UTM, with the “control surfaces” of the aircraft controlled by computer.

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Introducing the VisionOne – the world’s smallest jet plane

Image copyright Matt Dravitzki Image caption Instead of the ‘control surfaces’ of the UTM, the aircraft wing is suspended from the ground

The on-board artificial intelligence allows the aircraft to fly autonomously, selecting the best flight path, and controlling the stability by monitoring and tweaking its engine and avionics systems.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s aviation safety engineer Michael Sull, who leads its efforts to develop and implement machine learning within the FAA, says UTM should change aviation forever.

“There is nothing else like it in the aviation industry,” he says.

“It’s the first step, if it works, towards creating a third category of type-certified commercial aircraft for light freight, low-level air traffic management and in-air taxi applications.”

Future projects

Image copyright Airbus Image caption This is the first test flight of the Airbus AIP ROLAND aircraft

The French Civil Aviation Authority has also funded one UTM project. It will combine components from Airbus’s AIP ROLAND aircraft to create a new type of vehicle powered entirely by renewable energy.

It will be the first of its kind to operate on air, ground or sea and therefore is likely to become a cornerstone for UTM operations.

British Airways is among the other major airlines to fly UTM-powered aircraft in tests for the Spanish Ministry of Industry.

The British airline has used the passenger Ehime Metropol aircraft that is part of this development.

The company tells the BBC that the programme is going to “take some time” and has not given any date when UTM operations could begin in the UK.

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