AI autopilot could let autonomous aircraft fly in busy airspaces

While pilots commonly use an autopilot when cruising at high altitudes, they typically switch to manual control when entering crowded lower airspaces. However, what if the plane has no pilot? Well, a new AI autopilot system for busy airspaces may be the answer.

Currently being developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, the system was trained on data collected at Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County Airport and Pittsburgh-Butler Regional Airport.

Along with utilizing the autonomous aircraft’s existing instrumentation – and information provided by local air traffic controllers – it incorporates six cameras and a computer vision system. According to the scientists, the latter setup allows it to visually spot nearby aircraft much as a human pilot would do.

The system is able to subsequently track those aircraft and predict their trajectories, taking action to avoid collisions when necessary. It can reportedly even understand plain-language spoken radio communications from other pilots or from airports, responding with a synthetic speech system of its own.

Although the technology has yet to be tested on an actual airplane, it has been trialled in a setup that involved two linked flight simulators. In that setup, a human piloted one virtual aircraft, while the AI system piloted another in the same airspace. It was found that the AI was able to successfully avoid collisions with the human-piloted aircraft, even when the pilot had little experience at flying a plane.

The scientists hope that once developed further, the system could be applied to autonomous aircraft such as air taxis or delivery drones.

“This is the first AI pilot that works in the current airspace,” said team member Assoc. Prof. Sebastian Scherer. “I don’t see that airspace changing for UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]. The UAVs will have to change for the airspace.”

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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