After a co-pilot on a Germanwings flight deliberately crashed into the French Alps in March of 2015, aviation commentators have been considering alternate modes of commercial flights, namely sans human pilots. Although automated technology in flights are hardly new, with computer autopilot and navigation auto-corrected by GPS systems and motion sensors, some have promoted the feasibility of entirely robot-driven or remotely operated commercial flights.
According to the New York Times, pilots of Boeing 777s spend just seven minutes manually operating their planes while Airbus pilots spend only three to four minutes.The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is making headway in plane automation with a technology known as the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS). ALIAS is an artificial intelligence equipped with situational awareness capability as well as the ability to control aircraft maneuvers.
Likewise, NASA is working on the viability of a ground-based co-pilot remotely operating multiple flights at once. At the agency’s Ames facility, scientists tested the Terminal Sequencing and Spacing software which is supposed to increase efficiency in air traffic by up to 20%, potentially saving up to billions of dollars in annual labor costs of co-pilots. Other suggestions include installing Automatic Ground-Collision Avoidance Systems (Auto-GCAS) technology onto commercial aircraft.
The technology is already used on military aircraft, currently integrated onto the US Air Force’s F-16 fleet, after becoming operational in October of last year. Auto-GCAS was first developed in the 1980s as a result of a collaboration between NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, Lockheed Martin,
the Air Force Research Laboratory, and the Air Force Test Center.
Auto-GCAS senses an aircraft’s altitude, attitude, speed, and proximity to terrain. If the program determines the likelihood of a crash it will automatically correct the aircraft’s course away from collision. However, critics of this idea argue that the technology is still susceptible to security concerns, with the possibility of being hacked into, and that human pilots are still able to override the system’s response.
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