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Aviation's Future is Safer, More Efficient and More Autonomous

Aviation's Future is Safer, More Efficient and More Autonomous

We are moving ever closer to the day when you will hail an automated air taxi to take you to the airport or have a package dropped off at your doorstep by a delivery drone. Uncrewed military aircraft will carry critical supplies to the front lines without putting pilots in harm’s way. And new technologies will guide large cargo aircraft safely to their destination with minimal pilot supervision or intervention.

Welcome to the age of autonomous flight.

Aviation is going to be entirely autonomous or highly automated by the 2040s. It unlocks new ways to operate and new business models that will make flying even safer and more accessible than it is today. And we need to enable and accelerate that future.

Autonomy will reduce costs, improve operations and aircraft utilization, and enable better use of our airspace. Greater autonomy also will ease a massive pilot shortage, which will become more severe as new advanced air mobility (AAM) vehicles, like air taxis and electrical regional aircraft, begin to come online in the next several years. Industry estimates highlight our need to train more than 600,000 pilots over the next two decades.

 

Flight Autonomy is a Logical Next Step

Technical innovations that improve safety and reduce pilot workload are really nothing new – in fact, they’re part of aviation’s DNA. Using automation to enhance safety dates back almost to the dawn of powered flight when Honeywell legacy company Sperry Gyroscope demonstrated the world’s first autopilot in 1914. Since then, constant advancements in technology have made modern aircraft safer, more efficient, more mission-effective and more automated than ever before.

At Honeywell, we believe the pathway to autonomous flight is clear, direct, and ready today. Smart aircraft systems are being engineered, tested, and certified to give aircraft increased ability to sense, decide, and act with greater autonomy through all phases of flight. We’re using our unique expertise in high-performance avionics, assured flight controls, advanced sensors, detect and avoid (DAA) technology, remote operations, contingency management, pilot monitoring, and other technologies to realize safe autonomous flight at scale. 

Autonomous and highly automated aircraft are already moving cargo. The military has used remotely piloted UAS platforms to carry supplies for more than a decade and in January the Navy delivered cargo to a moving ship for the first time. In the commercial world, delivery drones routinely move cargo of all kinds safely and seamlessly from Point A to Point B. It’s only a matter of time until autonomous drones provide routine home delivery of prescriptions, groceries and other essential items.

 

Ready-Now Technologies Drive Autonomous Flight

Honeywell has ready-now avionics and sensor capabilities to enable autonomous flight for military and civil cargo aircraft. A great example is the uncrewed Textron Pipistrel Nuuva 300 aircraft, which will carry up to 1,000 pounds of cargo to distances of more than 180 miles. The Nuuva 300 will be remotely operated by someone on the ground, thanks to an advanced Honeywell satellite communications system, compact fly-by-wire flight control and autonomous navigation software.

We also predict that before long, technology will enable one person to monitor multiple UAS aircraft in flight, which will open the door to even greater levels of flight automation and autonomy. Cargo-carrying UAS aircraft of all shapes and sizes – from small drones to large, unmanned cargo aircraft – will be more common by 2025. Success in the cargo space will establish the safety and efficiency of autonomous flight and drive acceptance for new applications in passenger aircraft, including UAM platforms.

 

UAM Will Demand Higher Levels of Autonomy

Ever greater levels of flight automation and autonomy are essential to establish and grow a safe and efficient UAM ecosystem in large cities and their suburbs. UAM will reduce commute times, unclog highways and city streets, quiet traffic noise and improve air quality. This new air transportation infrastructure will rely on fleets of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that are small, electric-powered and fully certified. They will also be highly automated and, eventually, autonomous and commanded by remote operators.

The first UAM vehicles will enter service in the next couple of years and experts predict that as many as 438,000 will be operational by 2040. At Honeywell, we’re working to simplify, streamline and add automation to flight operations and make UAM aircraft easier to fly. We see the opportunity to dramatically reduce pilot training time and enable simplified vehicle operations (SVO) in the next five years.

With SVO, you have a pilot onboard who supervises flight operations and intervenes only as needed. Once the flying public becomes comfortable with automation, it will be possible to take the pilot offboard and put them in an operations center to supervise the aircraft remotely. One operator could supervise multiple aircraft.

 

More Flight Deck Automation is in the Cards  

Flight deck automation began with the first autopilot more than a century ago and today’s cockpits are highly automated. Sophisticated flight management, navigation, communications, hazard avoidance, auto-land and other innovative systems improve situational awareness and optimize performance. They also manage operations in every stage of flight and reduce pilot workload so flight crews can concentrate on other priorities like safety, passenger comfort and on-time performance.

Automation is also a key enabler of the evolution toward single pilot operations (SPO), which will help airlines, cargo services and business jet operators reduce operating costs and cope with the growing pilot shortage.

Over the decades, automation has enabled operators to shift to a two-person flight crew, consisting of a captain and first officer. We’re rapidly moving toward a time in the next 10 years when, with regulatory approval, a single pilot will fly commercial and large business aircraft supported by advanced onboard automation technology and support services on the ground. Fully autonomous large cargo flights should be possible by the 2030s.

Next-generation cockpits – led by the groundbreaking Honeywell Anthem flight deck – take things to a whole new level. Honeywell Anthem offers features like the ability to seamlessly host third-party applications that empower operator innovation and the Connected Mission Manager, which automatically generates checklists and tells pilots what they should do next. Honeywell Anthem is available today for all kinds of aircraft and will fly first on eVTOL platforms from industry leaders Lilium,  Vertical Aerospace, and Supernal.

Safety is paramount in the autonomy equation. Greater levels of autonomy, implemented in a smart way, can make flying – which is already incredibly safe – even safer. It can augment human capabilities, optimize the human-machine interface and reduce the chance of errors. At Honeywell, we’re committed to applying our unparalleled experience in core enabling technologies to enhance safety in a more autonomous world.

Ready to learn more about the latest in technology for many of the primary systems found on these new aircraft? Let us know using the form below.
Jia Xu

Jia is the Chief Technology Officer for Honeywell's AAM business and is an expert in the AAM industry, its regulatory issues, and its technical challenges.