Dead Careers Beat: airline pilots

Paul Raven @ 29-06-2010

I’m kinda surprised this hasn’t started sooner, really… although 9/11 has made it difficult for a number of influential people to think rationally about air travel (or, in some cases, anything at all). But the logic is economically obvious: if we can remotely pilot UAVs over warzones, why the hell are we still using pilots in regular aircraft?

There are technological hurdles to overcome (as well as some legislative ones, no doubt), but they’re far from insurmountable:

Today’s airliners use a cooperative system called the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), whereby radio transmitters on each plane announce its position, height and heading. The system constructs a picture of what’s in a plane’s airspace and calculates collision risks. If a risk is detected, a loud, synthesised voice tells the crew to climb or dive to avoid the danger.

“UAVs will have to respond to these TCAS alerts,” says Dopping-Hepenstal. But when planes without TCAS venture close, things get tricky. Some of these “may be radio silent or have low electromagnetic signatures, making them difficult to detect”, he says. This is where the non-cooperative elements kick in. Astraea is developing a battery of sensors, including infrared heat sensors, millimetre-wave radars and optical cameras, to ensure UAVs know if a plane is nearby.

While infrared sensors and cameras should spot a plane in open air, they may lose it in cloud. That’s when millimetre-wave radar, which easily pierces fog, takes over.

Do bear in mind that the pilot of a large commercial aircraft leaves the autopilot to do its thing for around 99% of the journey in 99% of cases*; they’ve been glorified (and sharply-dressed) fail-safe fall-backs for decades now. I suppose the biggest question is whether air travel will remain economically viable for long enough to allow the reshaping of public opinion that would be needed to roll this out… though I fully expect RyanAir to start adding a Pilot Surcharge to all travel costs by the end of the week.

Don’t be scared, it’s a logical progression: if we can trust UAVs to kill people (so long as we’re not too picky about who exactly does the dying), it’s a short step to trusting them to not kill people.

[ * These percentages totally made up on the spot, but based on conversations with commercial pilots. Contrary figures welcomed – nay, encouraged. ]


I’ll trade a Puffin for my as-yet undelivered jetpack, thanks

Paul Raven @ 14-04-2010

Personal electric aircraft? Yes please!

NASA Puffin personal air vehicle concept

Nice to see NASA aren’t just resting their feet on the desks at the moment, though whether the Puffin concept would ever make it out of R&D (let alone strike anyone as useful or necessary at a consumer level) is a question probably best left unasked. As charming as it is, I look at that thing and think “oooh, Sinclair C5!” Though maybe some of the world’s crankier and/or more show-offy military forces would invest in them just for their wow factor.

I know I could never afford one, but even so: the avarice, it burns…


Smallest ever free-flying device

Tom James @ 17-08-2009

smallest-uavThe world’s smallest free-flying device has successfully flown. The DARPA-commissioned nano-air-vehicle flew TK without external support:

Aeronvironment has released a video that shows its “nano air vehicle” (NAV), which is the size of a small bird or large insect, hovering indoors without such crutches and under radio control. “It is capable of climbing and descending vertically, flying sideways left and right, as well as forward and backward, under remote control,” says the company….
Their ultimate ask is a ten-gram aircraft with a 7.5cm wingspan, which can carry a camera and explore caves and other potential hiding places. “It will need to fly at 10 metres per second and withstand 2.5-metre-per-second gusts of wind”

The micro-ornithopter/robot-insect concept has plenty of precedants in science fiction, and is another example of engineers borrowing from nature to solve engineering problems.

[from New Scientist, via Wired UK][image from ubergizmo]


DARPA <3 Dune: miniature ornithopter in development

Paul Raven @ 03-07-2009

Chalk yet another one up to Frank Herbert; the DARPA people have just awarded a Phase II contract extension (whatever that means) to a company called AeroVironment so that they can continue developing their ‘Mercury’ Nano Air Vehicle ornithopter prototype. [via Hack-A-Day]

Ornithopters – which feature heavily in the Dune series – are aircraft that are propelled by flapping their wings like a bird rather than using rotors, propellors or jets. Check out the Mercury prototype in action:


Homebrew UAV: arduino

Tom James @ 07-02-2009

curvy_gridFlash forward 20 years. Everyone has access to an open-source personal rapid prototyper (notwithstanding a fabber equivalent of Bill Gates…) and can rustle up one of these homebrew UAVs: at the drop of a futuristic ambient computer thing:

Combined with a RC plane, this makes it easy to build a complete UAV for less than $500, which is really kind of amazing. As exciting as that it is, it’s also sobering to know that a technology that was just a few years ago the sole domain of the military is now within the reach of amateurs…

As Charles Stross points out, ready-to print Saturday night specials could be only a decade away, and along with the UAVs and the fabbers it makes the next few years an interesting time to be alive.

[via Warren Ellis][image from tanakawho on flickr]


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