Scientists Create Airplane That Can Land Itself on Any Runway
Cars are getting reasonably good at driving themselves, but what about airplanes? Autopilot has existed for years, but a team of researchers from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has developed the most autonomous airplane yet. The automated landing system called C2Land uses computer vision to identify the runway and guide the plane down for a safe landing.
Commercial planes currently have a system called the Instrument Landing System (ILS), which can be useful when pilots can’t make visual contact with a runway. It relies on radio signals on the ground and on-board receivers to determine the plane’s position, but C2Land doesn’t need that infrastructure. Not all runways and airports will have costly hardware installed, but C2Land doesn’t need anything on the ground other than a runway. That could make it practical for use at smaller and more remote airports where expensive ILS hardware is impractical.
C2Land uses GPS for flight control along with a computer vision system. The cameras operate in both visible and infrared, allowing the system to function even in low-visibility conditions. The computer finds the outline of the runway and determines where the plane needs to end up. Combined with current airspeed and altitude, the system can calculate a virtual glide path for a perfect landing.
The team explained the system in a series of three papers, but nothing drives home the point like a real-world test. They equipped a Diamond DA42 propeller aircraft with the C2Land system and stuck a test pilot behind the controls. Pilot Thomas Wimmer took the plane up and pointed in the general vicinity of the airstrip, but from there it was all up to the computer.
You can see the entire landing, along with the computer’s image recognition, in the video above. Wimmer doesn’t have to take control of the aircraft at all during landing. This isn’t technically the first autonomous landing ever — Boeing accomplished that with a prototype commuter aircraft. However, that was a VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) vehicle. The TUM system works with the aircraft in service today.
Vision-assisted navigation systems like C2Land could become standard in the future, but this one is still just an experiment. Still, the researchers must be confident to put a human aboard the plane and turn the controls over to an algorithm.