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New Horizons

Autonomous Flight Is Coming, Slowly but Surely

Parimal Kopardekar is leading NASA’s efforts to set the requirements and minimize the risks of autonomous flight.

Business aircraft pilots and operators don’t have to change careers or take early retirement just yet, as completely autonomous flight is still “not imminent,” according to Parimal Kopardekar, director of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Institute.

Kopardekar, NASA’s senior technologist for Air Transportation Systems and the principal investigator for the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management project, explains that aircraft automation can, among other benefits, greatly reduce risk, enhance safety, streamline operations and expand capacity. However, he’s certain that pilots, either remote or in the cockpit, will be a part of the aviation system for a long time to come.

“Automating aviation systems doesn’t always mean removing the pilot,” says Kopardekar. “Autonomous flight can make it easier to operate and maintain aircraft and give them enhanced capability.”

NASA, which is leading the research and development of autonomous aircraft, also works closely with the FAA and industry to ensure its efforts are relevant to some of aviation’s bigger challenges, such as the pilot shortage, recurrent training, cockpit simplification and more.

“Humans will be in the loop for the foreseeable future.”

PARIMAL KOPARDEKAR Director of NASA's Aeronautics Research Institute

“We are working on multiple projects related to ATC/NextGen, ATM-X, system-wide safety, flight deck capability, and more,” notes Kopardekar. Understanding requirements, airspace integration within the National Airspace System, and methods of improving safety are the key areas of focus.

Although Kopardekar says that small drone development is relatively far along, the larger complexities of operating beyond line of sight, and ultimately from end to end – and then doing so completely autonomously – are still going to require extensive research and development.

“We have to determine all the requirements, minimize all the risks, handle all the contingencies and develop the methodology to adapt to them,” says Kopardekar. Examples include bird strikes, loss of GPS, pilot incapacitation, airspace integration and much more. “All the pieces need to be in place,” he says.

Today’s aircraft operators will have the opportunity to be involved in new cockpit designs, influencing the development of advanced air mobility aircraft, managing multiple drone operations, and much more, according to Kopardekar.

“Humans will be in the loop for the foreseeable future. Research will inform what’s the right answer.”

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PARIMAL KOPARDEKAR, PH.D is responsible for exploring new trends related to aviation in the areas of autonomy, aeronautics manufacturing and advanced air mobility. He has managed NASA’s Safe Autonomous System Operations Project, as well as the Next Generation Air Transportation Systems (NextGen) Concepts and Technology Development Project. He also is a member of NBAA’s Emerging Technologies Committee.

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