Are Autonomous Planes the Future of Aviation? NASA Thinks So

NASA will be researching three different studies as they look to develop autonomous plane technology.

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NASA have announced the start of their latest project, as they begin research into ‘Unmanned Aircraft Systems’, better known as self-driving or autonomous planes.

With the race for the first commercial self-driving car heating up, NASA have realised the potential of machine learning can also be put on the aviation industry.

NASA have approved three studies which will all collaborate to create a healthy system and infrastructure for autonomous aviation.

The first study looks at “safe inclusion and certification of autonomous systems in aviation.” This refers to the machine learning required for an AI vehicle to learn from their mistakes and adapt to new environments.

Alongside that, research is also being done in ensuring that the technology is developed so that a remotely-piloted drone is “fit to fly”. This will prevent the aircraft from taking off if the AI detects itself that there is a physical issue with the plane, such as a faulty engine, or will shut down if the onboard systems are hacked in any way.

NASA will be undertaking three studies to ensure that all processes for autonomous aviation are safe and effective

Their third and final study will be using quantum computing and communication to manufacture a “network capable of accommodating hundreds of thousands of drones flying each day.” The reason for using quantum computing rather than a standard computer is that the quantum computers will be able to more efficiently organise and process the data.

“Quantum computers may be able to solve certain problems in a few days that would take millions of years on the average computer,” they said in their statement.

Richard Barhydt, NASA’s acting director of the Transformative Aeronautics Concepts Program (TACP), says that their plan is to test the possibilities of new, disruptive technology early, so that they can know whether these ideas can become a reality.

“Our idea is to invest a very modest amount of time and money into new technologies that are ambitious and potentially transformative,” he said.

“They may or may not work, but we won’t know unless we try.”

The willingness to try new ideas is a testament to NASA’s forward-thinking culture, where every idea is viewed as a possible innovation that’s yet to be tested.

Although the development of autonomous planes may be years, even decades into the future, NASA’s first move towards researching the possibilities is a refreshing sight, as unlike many other organisations, NASA are willing to fail fast and learn from their mistakes.