Total autopilot: A step closer

Sep 20, 2012 by Sarah Perrin
Total autopilot: A step closer
Credit: 2012 EPFL

(Phys.org)—Will planes someday fly without pilots? Three EPFL laboratories, commissioned by Honeywell and operating under the auspices of EPFL's Transportation Center, are working on this possibility by developing collision-prediction, avoidance, and real-time vision algorithms. The project is a formidable technological challenge.

"Is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?" Someday in the future, this well-known quote from the 1980 movie Airplane might not seem so ludicrous. In partnership with Honeywell, an American company that specializes in developing materials and technologies for various sectors including aviation, three EPFL laboratories are working on a completely automated aerial collision-avoidance system.

Aircraft that carry goods and passengers aren't going to be equipped with this kind of system any time soon, however. It will first be used for small airplanes or drones in non-, such as forest fire surveillance or monitoring access to industrial sites and borders. And it could prove invaluable in missions that are hazardous or simply not possible with human pilots, such as taking measurements in a or above a after an accident.

The scientists involved in the project have joined forces under the aegis of EPFL's Transportation Center, which is called TraCE. The Real-Time Coordination and Distributed Interaction Systems Group – known as REACT – is working on predicting trajectories and in-flight collision avoidance. The Computer Vision Laboratory, also known as CVLab, has the job of outfitting the aircraft with a veritable system. And the Distributed Intelligent Systems and Algorithms Laboratory, DISAL, will test algorithms on small, lightweight flying robots.

"It is a project that confirms EPFL's unique expertise in the transport research field. The multidisciplinary character of the project unites three laboratories from three different Schools who have teamed up with a large company like Honeywell to remain as close as possible to industrial requirements", says Michaël Thémans, Associate Director of the Transportation Center.

For Honeywell, the project has great potential in both the civil and commercial sectors, far beyond just aviation. "These new technologies will not only help us improve general flight safety, for example by providing better autopilot systems, but they will certainly also have other uses in automating everyday life," says George Papageorgiou, director of the Aerospace Advanced Technology Europe System Engineering & Applications Department at Honeywell.

Zero accidents

The REACT team has been working for several years on issues involving driverless vehicles. They will now also work on developing algorithms that can predict position and trajectory for aircraft occupying a given segment of airspace based on the data from all available devices – GPS, ground-based radar, cameras, and infrared cameras. They're looking to provide very reliable programs to avoid all accidents as far in advance as possible. "It's a project that places the technological bar very high," says group director Denis Gillet.

CVLab scientist Vincent Lepetit is developing a system to analyze images taken by high-definition cameras. "What seems to be a simple task for the human eye is incredibly complex to reproduce technically," he explains. "The main difficulty lies in the enormous amount of information that has to be processed; each image is made up of several hundred thousand pixels." In addition, it's not enough to perceive objects in the immediate vicinity; they must also be identified, their trajectory and speed calculated, and their time of approach predicted.

DISAL, the third group involved in the project, will work on algorithms to network data with other nearby aircraft. The group has recently acquired a flight-testing area with a testing room and will soon have a state-of-the-art 3D positioning system. Sensors and algorithms will be tested on small flying robots called quadrirotors. "We will work on integrating trajectory prediction, avoidance, stability, vision, and data-exchange algorithms developed by various laboratories, and see how to get them working together in real time," explains laboratory director Alcherio Martinoli.

A new perspective

By working with EPFL, Honeywell is in search not only of cutting-edge research expertise, but also a new perspective on aviation technologies. "We have much to learn from scientists in other research fields, because they will certainly look at the problems from a different angle and propose different solutions and ideas," says Papageorgiou.

There's still a psychological and social hurdle to overcome, however – one that's not negligible. "The idea of pilotless airplanes is still frightening, and that's why we're moving step by step," the Honeywell representative says. "Developing these new technologies will take a lot of time. It's a true revolution; people will get more comfortable with it very gradually over time."

Explore further: Entrepreneur builds a sleek ship, but will anyone buy it?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Europe looks into helicopter commuting

Jun 20, 2011

A European research program is studying the feasibility of a new kind of individual transport that avoids traffic jams by taking to the skies. Two laboratories at EPFL participate in this project.

Space Image: Flight test

Jun 20, 2011

In this image from November 2010, the U.S. Air Force's ACAT F-16D flew through Sierra Nevada canyons and past peaks during ground collision avoidance test flights.

Micro helicopters leave the nest

Apr 24, 2012

Within the framework of the EU project sFly, researchers at ETH Zurich have developed a new type of flying robot that can be navigated using only on-board cameras and a miniature computer. The micro helicopters ...

A 360 degree camera that sees in 3D (w/ Video)

Dec 01, 2010

Surround sight has come to the camera. Inspired by the eye of a fly, EPFL scientists have invented a camera that can take pictures and film in 360° and reconstruct the images in 3D.

Recommended for you

FAA, industry launch drone safety campaign

6 hours ago

Alarmed by increasing encounters between small drones and manned aircraft, drone industry officials said Monday they are teaming up with the government and model aircraft hobbyists to launch a safety campaign.

Off-world manufacturing is a go with space printer

Dec 20, 2014

On Friday, the BBC reported on a NASA email exchange with a space station which involved astronauts on the International Space Station using their 3-D printer to make a wrench from instructions sent up in ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

bredmond
not rated yet Sep 20, 2012
great, then we can all have hybrid vehicles (that is car/hybrid) that can fly too. maybe they will open new low altitude Skyways that vehicles can use on autopilot only (that is, no manual control allowed). just indicate your destination (voice active or manual computer input) and the car can go to designated skyway runway/onramps and away we go!

Maybe someday i can have a RV that can do this. if it is boat shaped and big enough, maybe it can be like a yacht and so i can go in the ocean. maybe it can deploy a balloon so that i can float along above scenic spots like the grand canyon. My parents do a lot of camping with their trailer so i think of these things.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.