Airbus unveil airliners that can take off and land – without a pilot

Driverless cars are already a reality. Next up: driverless planes.

The long boring parts of most airliner journeys are already controlled by autopilot, with trained pilots just remaining at the controls in case of an emergency. They’re really there just to look after the two most dangerous parts of any flight: take-off and landing.

But now even those parts of an aircraft’s journey could be controlled by computer.

A demonstration of new technology from Airbus sees their A350 taking off from Toulouse Airport with no interaction from the pilot or co-pilot – even though at one point the pilot’s hand nervously strays to the controls and the co-pilot has to remind him that the machine is in control.

Airbus released the video, which showed one of eight tests of the new system that took place last month.

Airbus Test Pilot Captain Yann Beaufils explained how the test went: "While completing alignment on the runway, waiting for clearance from air traffic control, we engaged the auto-pilot.

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"We moved the throttle levers to the take-off setting," he added. "And we monitored the aircraft.

"It started to move and accelerate automatically maintaining the runway centre line, at the exact rotation speed as entered in the system.

"The nose of the aircraft began to lift up automatically to take the expected take-off pitch value and a few seconds later we were airborne."

The system uses a computer-generated ‘model’ of the runway loaded into its memory which it compares with the existing markings on the tarmac to determine its exact position. It adjusts speed and orientation to match the perfect take-off.

Airbus rivals Boeing are also moving ahead with plans to reduce pilots’ workload.

Steve Norlund, a vice president at the troubled plane manufacturer which has experienced deadly computer problems with its 737 MAX aircraft, said that Boeing believes in “autonomous flight and self-piloted aircraft” and that the company is “working on those technologies today.”

Mr Norlund said that the company hoped to start building airliners designed for just one pilot.

At present all aircraft with a passenger capacity of 20 or more are required by EU rules to have a pilot plus a co-pilot.

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