back to article Robot lands a 737 by hand, on a dare from DARPA

An outfit called Aurora Flight Sciences is trumpeting the fact that one of its robots has successfully landed a simulated Boeing 737. Aviation-savvy readers may well shrug upon learning that news, because robots – or at least auto-landing systems - land planes all the time and have done so for decades. Aurora's excitement is …

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Terminator

I'm sure we'll see it as a retrofit option. The road to autonomy as we know it involves robotic assistance for the meatbag first, followed by lots of supervised machine learning, and then a gradual phase out of meatbags who are sat there with a hand on the big red override switch. We'll see it with land vehicles first, then marine, then aviation.

Airlines know full well that they have to pay two very expensive pilots salaries when their effective professional utilisation is probably around the 3-5% mark. Most of the time they are staring at instruments of an aircraft that requires no intervention. Even if there is a mandate for human intervention, this could be done in the same way that military drone operations are done now - high reliability datalinks with a professional pilot at the other end, potentially controlling multiple aircraft if the required utilisation rate of the pilot is low. I'm not saying your passenger planes are going to be affected for decades yet, but semi-autonomous cargo? Probably could be done by 2025.

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Suppose that, on average, a captain earns $200,000 and the first officer earns $100,000 (these figures are way overstated) and both fly 100 times a year (and that one is way understated).

Each flight would then cost $3,000 in flight deck crew cost.

Fuel capacity of an aircraft varies between ~15 tons for a small passenger jet (737 or A320), and ~70 tons for a widebody like 787.

That's between some 4900 and 23000 gallons of jet fuel. I've searched for current prices of jet fuel and I found wildly different prices, from ~140¢/gal (IATA) to as high as 293-790¢/gal (aviationweek, low-high prices across the US). Going with the lowest figures, it costs from $6,800 to $32,000 to fuel up an aircraft. Flight deck crew costs doesn't even enter into the picture.

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'and both fly 100 times a year (and that one is way understated).'

To be honest for long haul that's probably overstated.

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Trollface

From what I have known in the past, on long haul flights the Pilots spend most of their time doing crosswords or sleeping..

I wonder if this robot can also do a crossword whilst sleeping ?

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Unhappy

"Flight deck crew costs doesn't even enter into the picture."

However that represents one recurring cost (pilot salary) versus 1 single payment (with a service contract as well?)

It also (might) represent several kilos of mass IE the 2nd pilot that does not have to be carried and can be replaced by more useful "stuff" (IE something the airline can charge you for rather than a cost they have to pay). TBH that 'bot looks quite heavy but then it's a PoC design and I don't think DARPA said it had to be lighter, just about the same as a pilot.

That said as a permanent installation in a commercial aircraft they could probably simplify the design and have its control boards share the equipment racks with other stuff and take various other measures to cut its weight below that of a meatsack. 10-20Kg below the average weight of a pilot might sound nothing but over the life of aircraft (and with some airlines on <1% profit) that multiplies up to a shed load of cash.

That said autoland systems are certified to 1 fail in 1x 10^9 operating hours. That sounds ridiculous but consider (using round numbers) 6000 737's in operation x 10 mins of autoland operation x # of flights a day --> 1000 hrs x # of flights a day. IOW you've racked up 1 billion operations in 3 years.

Demonstrating this system can have that level of reliability will be tough.

But it's going to happen in commercial aviation at least. The bottom line is (sadly) the bottom line.

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Airline Pilot, Copilot, or Flight Engineer Salary

It's all relative. OTOH, I know what a good plumber can make.

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Re: "Flight deck crew costs doesn't even enter into the picture."

@John Smith 19:

However that represents one recurring cost (pilot salary) versus 1 single payment (with a service contract as well?)

Not until they invent planes that you only fuel up once and never pay for fuel again.

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"Not until they invent planes that you only fuel up once and never pay for fuel again."

Sorry, I was not clear.

The single payment I was talking about was the purchase cost of the robot. Beyond X number of flights the saving from not paying for pilot (or co-pilot) pays for the 'bot.

If it's also lighter than the average pilot that can also save a (smallish) number of Kg of fuel per flight, but over the life of the aircraft that can also be substantial. Otherwise they might trade if for something else. It might put new routes within range of existing aircraft for example.

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Re: "Not until they invent planes that you only fuel up once and never pay for fuel again."

Also, easy to envision lower running costs (no food, water, or sleep needed) and potentially reduced risks (no risk of them showing up DRUNK or otherwise stressed out).

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RE: Flight deck crew costs doesn't even enter into the picture.

Still wont stop some accountant saving the company money. Saving that $100,000 a year may not make any difference to ticket prices but its a health bonus for someone.

I've noticed in some companies above a certain level saving $100,000 will lead to a much higher bonus. Maths is different in the thin air at the top.

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Facepalm

"high reliability datalinks with a professional pilot at the other end"

ALL YOUR 737Z ARE BELONG TO UZ.

I suspect that won't end well. The NSA are bound to find / mandate ...

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Anonymous Coward

"can also do a crossword whilst sleeping ?"

Yes, but only the Daily Mail one, so lots of very cross words, and it will only fly people to and from Commonwealth countries, as everyone else is evil.

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While I tend to agree, but there's the human thing. Not just from passengers needing reassurance that there's a human in charge. We've had several incidents (for lack of a better term) where the pilot managed to save the plane and passengers a nasty death. On the other hand, we've had a few incidents where not having a human pilot might have been a better thing.

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I'd like to see them try this as a retro-fit to a De Havilland Mosquito, then land it on an aircraft carrier.

Any Winkle Brown refs most welcome.

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Anonymous Coward

first they came for the co-pilot...

...

actually, wrong. First they came for the drivers, of course.

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Re: first they came for the co-pilot...

It actually boggles the mind how we can even talk about attempting to replace drivers with a straight face, while we require our vehicles moving around on fucking rails to still be operated (to the sole extent of "go faster" "go slower" "stop here") by humans, all across the board.

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Re: first they came for the co-pilot...

Partly because train drivers are heavily unionised, and will take strong action to head off this threat, which is why implementation is limited to wholly new systems like DLR in London and to shuttle systems at airports, etc.

Also, I used to know a train driver, and he would have to leave the cab of his train to perform maintenance on a fairly regular basis. AIUI, this was often of the percussive nature.

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Re: first they came for the co-pilot...

And the DLR is comparatively easy to automate, since much of the track is up out of the reach of stupid meatsacks doing silly things after five pints of snakebite and black.

I haven't actually been on the DLR for ten years or so. Does each train still have a guard aboard to stop the stupid meatsacks doing silly things with the doors when they realise they've missed their station?

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Re: first they came for the co-pilot...

Yes, DLR still has Train Captains. They can drive the trains in emergency / fault conditions. They are first line fault diagnosis and repair. They also provide a degree of security and a visible point of contact for customers.

One of the other requirements for "no crew" trains is that the train is easily accessible in emergency situations - which explains the footway in the tunnel on the DLR when it goes into Bank, and which rules out most of the Tube as being driver free.

Another is Platform Edge doors - which rules out any Lines of the Tube where more than one stock shares a platform as the doors don't line up - so forget the Jubilee, and Met, and District / Met and Piccadilly

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Devil

Re: first they came for the co-pilot...

"First they came for the drivers, of course."

Hi! I'm Johnny Cab.

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Genuinely interesting idea

And kinda though provoking. The advantages of making robots that can use interfaces that humans use, rather than specifically interfacing for a robot is clear. You only need one interface, and the robot could be interoperable for other human interfaces too, perhaps such as a car . However, there is zero, and I mean no excuse whatsoever not to put an airline pilot's cap on the robot in that picture. What the heck were they thinking?

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"The advantages of making robots that can use interfaces that humans use"

Yes. A group called Shadow Robotics noticed as much about 30 years ago. It turns out that building a human strong, human speed, human weight and at least human accurate robot is very tough.

The big one is the human weight. Human muscle is actually very light for its output relative to other systems and real human hands have 100s of degrees of freedom, enabled by each one.

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Somewhere in Ireland

Michael O'Leary is stroking his Ryanair plane, trying not to explode with excitement of cutting costs even further by sacking all his pilots.

He has mentioned pilotless planes before (or having one pilot instead of 2), so this will only drive him on.

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Coat

Somewhere in Ireland...Michael O'Leary is stroking his Ryanair plane,

Vigorously.

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All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again

The UK actually did something similar to this with its Sea Vixen drone programme

https://www.seavixen.org/sea-vixen-drone-d3-era

The difference mainly being they never got round to trying it in different aircraft as far as I can tell and it didn't have a robotic arm on the controls. But the basic principle of a removable package that can replace the pilot in a variety of aircraft is there.

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Unhappy

Re: All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again

From the site

https://www.seavixen.org/sea-vixen-drone-d3-era

"So FR came up with something called a Universal Drone Pack (UDP) and all the avionic modules for the remote control were on a rack slid onto the ejector seat rails in the Observers position."

Good point. It had not occurred to me that ejector seat rails on military aircraft are quite standardized, so you could replace it by a rack of hardware that sits in the cockpit and (fairly easily) transfer it to other aircraft afterward.

Unfortunately apart from converting a combat aircraft into a drone relatively easily I cannot think of any other uses.

Quick testing of a new kind of sensor (especially if it needs to see the sky) without having to fit it into a pod? Some sort of sat comms ?

All sounds a bit far fetched. A neat hack but not actually that useful.

Anyone else have any ideas?

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Re: All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again

'All sounds a bit far fetched. A neat hack but not actually that useful.'

I think it was mainly as you say to convert combat aircraft into drones. Although the UK programme never really got anyway beyond a couple of Sea Vixens there were aspirations to convert a lot more and a number of retired Lightnings as targets. The USN and USAF have done this and converted a few hundred F-4 Phantoms to drones for missile test purposes, and they've now moved on to high mileage F-16s, so some sort of UDP may have sold to them although I don't think that's the route they've taken.

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Unhappy

Re: All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again

"I think it was mainly as you say to convert combat aircraft into drones. Although the UK programme never really got anyway beyond a couple of Sea Vixens there were aspirations to convert a lot more and a number of retired Lightnings as targets. The USN and USAF have done this and converted a few hundred F-4 Phantoms to drones for missile test purposes, and they've now moved on to high mileage F-16s, so some sort of UDP may have sold to them although I don't think that's the route they've taken."

I do love the convenience of the concept. It's just so neat. It put me in mind of the "Q hatch" in the U2. Just a rectangular tunnel running top to bottom behind the pilot you could insert whatever you wanted (usually, but not always a camera package of some kind, with one looking at the stars to get a precise location) into. In principal the cockpit environment is a bit more hospitable in terms of temperature and humidity than inside a wing mounted pod and the visibility to the sky is much better, hence my thoughts of sat comms.

Oh well.

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BS detector activated

Sorry, I have to call BS on this, and I don't suppose I'm the only one. The physical bot-in-the-seat (let's call him Otto?) must have at least as many inputs available as would any built-in system. It must be able to make at least as many outputs (control actions) as a human pilot, but why would you limit it to human-only capability, when built-in software can do so much more all at once? And Otto's software cannot be less complex than a built-in system: it has to be more complex because it requires extra code for running otherwise pointless servos and pressure sensors and wotnot. Plus, if it even needs to be said, why waste an entire seat for machinery, when you can have built-in systems and two seats available for humans?

And let's not enquire what happens when Otto sees—if he even can see—a runway incursion ahead, where a human pilot would hit TOGA as a brainstem reflex?

So logically this makes sense only as a "dare", per the headline, with perhaps some peripheral learning opportunities. But no one with half a brain would create and install Otto as a right-seater when you can build in better (and cheaper, I'd guess) embedded systems. Perhaps the real exploration is looking into general-purpose robotic systems capable of replacing humans for certain highly rules-based tasks? In that context this fanciful test might make a little more sense.

Unless, of course, the F-35 program is in such dire trouble that ancient, pre-software planes are going to be dusted off for service? It'll be something to see: squadrons of alpha-version terminators clanking as they board old century-series fighters in the desert ...

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Ooops

About 1:11 it seems old Otto kinda bumped the yoke without meaning to. True?

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Re: Ooops

Yeah, I noticed that too... setting the air brake by pushing it into a dive..

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Black Helicopters

Could anyone enlighten me why the plane has a yoke and a joystick? I would have thought it was one or t'other?

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Facepalm

Recursive piloting

How long before this robot is sat on the ground 'flying' a machine that is 'flying' a drone?

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Coat

Wrong acronym

Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS)

Shouldn't that be ALICAS? Has a certain ring to it...

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Re: Wrong acronym

I never understood this obsession with acronyms anyway...

Signed, Supreme Head of Interoffice Talks

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I assume the robot is the one on the left of the photograph, in which case it is very impressive indeed.

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No, I think it is the one on the right, where a seat should be.

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Easy to fly

The 737 is actually remarkably easy to fly, with even minimal training. Had the pleasure of several hours in a 737 simulator at Gatwick prior to it being shipped off to Seattle, most of it is automated but I was surprised by just how easy it was to land. That said that was under perfect conditions, not sure I'd be quite so successful given more adverse weather conditions.

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FAIL

I feel truly deceived by this post.

I call clickbait! I came to this post expecting a shot from Airplane! and found a stupid robot arm sitting by a human.

This is how the notice should have been illustrated:

http://filmfanatic.org/reviews/wp-content/uploads/2007/02/Blowjob2.JPG

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Anonymous Coward

Re: I feel truly deceived by this post.

Even though I know what the pic will be, there's no way I'm following that URL...

Office 'net filters blowing up everywhere :)

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Is it just me...

Or does this remind anyone else of Scutters?

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Happy

Ryanair

How long before Michael O'Leary says he wants robots for his flight decks?

One could argue that he already thinks he is employing robot crew

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Anonymous Coward

*yawn*

The civil service has had robots controlling robots controlling drones forever. Wake me up when they work out how to make them have interesting conversations at dinner parties.

Also....

AAAAAAAAARGH SKYNET IS COMING! Etc...

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It's DARPA -- they have earned the right to do 'pointless' research

My first reaction was the same as others -- "why not just include the functionality in the avionics?"

Then I thought about why so many private planes had only half century old avionics installed, and a Garmin GPS temporarily mounted. The GPS was very expensive compared to identical spec units used for driving, but still vastly less expensive than properly installing and integrating approved avionics. Plus the typical pilot can easily buy a just-released far better unit every few years and leave the older GPS around as a back-up.

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Anonymous Coward

Ok...

But can it have a crafty fag in the first class toilets? How much gin does it burn per hour? Thats the real cost saving.

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I feel sorry for the 9/11 conspiracy theorists, this will drive them nuts

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Terminator

Nice job

As a proof of concept, it's pretty cool. Still has challenges, but DARPA is at least if not more about the art of the possible as appearing-now-in-stores product.

People who fly commercial planes think of themselves as having special skills (skills that justify lots of training and largish salaries). I don't take a position on that. I do predict that in a few years time there will be an absolutely brutal fight between commercial pilots and airlines when the latter try to introduce this technology into regular flights. People kind of write off working class occupations displaced by technology (no one cares about truckers being automated away) but middle-class jobs elicit howls of anguish. Steel yourself.

It certainly doesn't help that since 9/11 commercial pilots barely interact with the passengers any more, and the flying experience is more like riding a bus every day. In that environment, the public may conclude that an automaton or a remote pilot can drive the bus just as well as Captain Yeager up there behind the magic steel door.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Nice job

But then what happens when crap happens such as those occasional bouts of severe turbulence, an urgency like Qantas Flight 30 (when the air cylinder blew and cause a depressurization), or even an emergency like the multiple bird strikes that forced down US Airways Flight 1549 and took a very quick-thinking pilot to think about ditching in the Hudson River?

IOW, for at least the forseeable future, you can probably take ONE pilot out of the cockpit but not both because machines still have trouble dealing with Murphy.

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Re: Nice job

If the airlines want it badly enough, they can make it happen. And the airlines *hate* the pilots (more accurately, the pilots' union). Big salaries, publically vocal, nice pensions, strict limits on hours, it's enough to make your average Airline Wall Street CEO quite grumpy.

I can see autonomous systems aiding the pilot/co-pilot first, then the co-pilot goes and is replaced by automation with ground based pilot backup (like a drone operator) and then eventually the pilot is either gone or converted into a glorified bus driver. I don't particularly welcome this scenario (for the reasons you cite) but airlines will do anything to save money, and pilots are one of the few highly-paid, highly skilled unionized workforces out there, and certain political classes would just love to break that one up.

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FAIL

rubbish

Was the "robot" flying the plane without instruments or was it just tracking the airport's localizer? The latter is unimpressive and the airplane can already do that by itself.

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