There are many benefits to living in the 21st century. With the advancement of medicine, technology, and automation; there’s plenty to be optimistic about the future.
We have seen the same steady incline of modern aviation, and as technology improves, so too should flying in our current era. But how far has flying come since its inception in the 20th century?
We often get questions about the automation process of a plane, and how many pilots are truly needed these days for flying.
Most people are aware of the autopilot feature; which allows for automatic control of the plane so that it follows a pre-recorded path without any input from the pilot.
Sort of like a cruise control we find in cars except autopilot is hands-free.
But what about the taking off and landing procedures of a flight? Are planes now completely self-controlling and is the age of the pilot about to be over? Let’s find out.
Can A Passenger Plane Land By Itself?
The short answer is yes, and is commonly referred to as “autoland”.
The pilots can program when the autoland feature is enabled, usually under certain conditions, and the pilots will monitor the aircraft systems to ensure a safe landing.
This has opened up the realm of new possibilities for autonomous flight and could pave the way for safer landings moving forward. Or does it? More on this in just a second.
To dispel a common myth; autoland is not strictly speaking automatic and requires input from the pilot. It also relies on radio signals that are emitted that are found at all major airports.
This is referred to as the Instrument Landing System or ILS. This means autoland is strictly reserved for major airports and not the dinky landing strip in the middle of nowhere.
These signals will send information to the aircraft and let them know exactly where the runway is. Even in poor conditions.
Autoland requires a minimum of two things:
1) An accurate map of the area surrounding the airport.
2) The plane must be equipped with an appropriate system called an Inertial Navigation System or INS.
An INS is basically a computerized navigation system that uses GPS data to calculate the position of the aircraft.
This data is then fed into the INS and used to determine the aircraft’s location relative to the ground.
If you’re wondering why they need an INS; it’s because the INS uses the GPS signal to determine the aircraft’s position (see also “Does Bluetooth Work On Airplanes?“).
Without an INS, it’s impossible to accurately measure the distance between the aircraft and the ground.
How Often Does A Pilot Select Autoland?
However certain limitations will affect the use of autoland, and so right now, it’s not a case of a pilot putting their feet up watching the plane land itself.
In fact, automatic landings are so few and far between it would be a very rare occasion for a pilot to select autoland when approaching a landing situation.
It’s suggested that less than 1% of all landings are carried out automatically which means most of the work is still done by a human. Which may be a relief for some nervous passengers.
This is because it’s actually easier for a pilot to land a plane manually than having to monitor every little detail that autoland requires.
Most pilots have so much training, that landing a plane manually simply takes a lot less hassle than autoland.
What Are The Requirements For Autoland?
Due to the high level of monitoring required by a pilot, they will need retraining every six months to stay on top of the demanding procedures.
Along with this, autolands can only be performed from a qualified pilot as well as the requirement for the aircraft to have certification as well as the airport itself.
You can see there are a lot of conditions for this situation to happen which is one reason why it is not so commonly used.
Categories Of ILS
Right now there are three categories for ILS; CAT I, CAT II, and CAT III A/B/C.
CAT I (aka manual landing) will require a manual landing, but the runway visibility must be at more than 550 meters.
Also, pilots must be in sight of the runway by an altitude of 200ft.
CAT II (auto or manual landing) will require a minimum of 300 meters and 100ft.
CAT III is the autoland procedures and is broken down into three sub-categories:
CAT IIIA requires a minimum of 200 meters and 50ft.
CAT IIIB requires a minimum of 50 meters and 0ft
CAT III C has the potential to go to zero visibility.
What About Autopilot?
Autopilot is typically used in-flight and most flights will go through some form of autopilot stage, depending on certain aspects. So why do we even need pilots at all?
Well, there are some situations where an autopilot cannot function properly. For instance, if the weather is bad or if the plane is damaged, then the autopilot may not work.
In this case, the pilots are still required to perform their duties.
Another situation where the autopilot cannot take over is when the pilots have been incapacitated. If the pilots are unconscious, they cannot operate the controls and the autopilot takes over.
This is similar to driving a car with the driver passed out. The autopilot will take over and drive safely until the driver wakes up.
Autopilots also require the pilots to set up the parameters for the procedure. The autopilot will follow those instructions and complete the task.
So let’s say that the autopilot has been programmed to land the plane on Runway 27 Left, at 10,000 feet, and the wind speed is 5 knots (5 miles per hour).
The pilots would have to enter these details into the autopilot before takeoff.
Can A Plane Take-Off Automatically?
Now we know that some aircraft have the option to land automatically; but what about taking off? Has modern navigation reached this stage yet?
The answer is no, currently, there are no aircraft, either commercial or private that have the capabilities to take off by themselves.
All flights must be carried out by the pilot, with autopilot being applied at around the height of 1,000 feet above the ground. This is not to be confused with an assisted takeoff.
This is a system for helping an aircraft get into the air, as opposed to doing it under its own control.
Some of the reasons that a flight might require an assisted takeoff are due to certain things like too much weight that has exceeded the maximum capacity, not enough power, insufficient runway length, or even a combination of all three.
It’s safe to say that pilots are not going the way of the Dodo; at least not yet anyway, and they are still a vital component of the flight procedure.
For now; most of the flight automation is strictly autopilot, with landings only ever rarely being used, and take-offs still requiring a human to perform.
However, the future of aviation is looking bright for the next generation of pilots. With advances in technology, such as artificial intelligence, the days of human error are numbered.
While humans remain involved in the process, there will always be room for improvement.
The future does hold promise for a time when planes can fly without human intervention. But for now, you’ll always need a pilot to guide your plane home. Which for many, is often a sigh of relief.