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Airbus UpNext, a subsidiary of Airbus that focuses on the future of flight, has begun testing new technologies that explore the possibilities of autonomous flight systems, utilizing an A350-1000 test aircraft.
Dubbed the Airbus DragonFly demonstrator, the aircraft is being used to test on-ground and in-flight pilot assistance technologies — including automated emergency diversion in cruise, automatic landing, and taxi assistance — to enable crews “to better understand their environment, and help support their decision making” — ultimately making operations “safer and more efficient,” Airbus said in a press release.
The “DragonFly” name is inspired by the insect itself, thanks to its excellent vision, and “ability to see in 360 degrees and recognize landmarks,” the company explained.
“In the same way that dragonflies can recognize landmarks that help them to define boundaries, our demonstrator is equipped with cutting-edge sensing technology and software, capable of managing in-flight and landing operations,” added Isabelle Lacaze, head of DragonFly demonstrator, Airbus UpNext.
The goal of DragonFly is to provide aircraft with an extra layer of safety, especially in emergency situations, or when landing in low visibility or difficult weather. For example, if the crew are not able to control the aircraft for any reason, “the onboard function detects the issue and automatically selects the most suitable airport to redirect the aircraft towards,” explained Airbus. The technologies could also be “customized” to a pilot’s flying skills “to relieve them of additional processes” in an emergency situation.
However, the company has taken into account the fact that flight paths, and other external factors, can be moving targets. Airbus UpNext said it has designed DragonFly to utilize data collected during flight, in combination with flight zones, terrain, and weather conditions, to make an automated, but smart, decision on where to land.
“Our DragonFly also benefits from a constant channel of communication between the aircraft and both Air Traffic Control (ATC) and the Operations Control Centre of the airline to ensure a safe and coordinated approach,” the company added.
Such performance has already been tested by Airbus, in cooperation with its subsidiaries and external partners — Cobham, Collins Aerospace, Honeywell, Onera, and Thales. During the initial phase of the DragonFly demonstrator flight test campaign, the technologies were tasked with managing a simulated incapacitated crew member event, having to assist the pilots in flight as well as during landing and taxiing operations.
“Taking into account external factors . . . the aircraft was able to generate a new flight trajectory plan and communicate with both ATC and the airline Operations Control Centre,” noted Airbus.
Features for taxi assistance — which would provide crews with “audio alerts in reaction to obstacles, assisted speed control, and guidance to the runway using a dedicated airport map” — were also tested at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport, in real-time conditions. These types of features would aim to reduce pilot workload.
The DragonFly demonstrator is now entering the last three months of its test campaign, according to Airbus, where the emphasis will be placed on the flightpath capability, automated landing, and pilot assistance technologies.
In the near future, Airbus UpNext is set to begin a project that will focus on preparing “the next generation of computer vision-based algorithms to advance landing and taxi assistance,” the company said.