Aircraft landing autonomously without a pilot caught on video

Cathy Adams

German researchers have developed an automatic landing system for small aircraft that allows them to land without a pilot and any of the ground technology typically used for commercial flights.

The system, led by researchers at Germany’s Technical University of Munich (TUM), allows aircraft to land autonomously using “vision-assisted navigation”.

Commercial aircraft typically use the Instrument Landing System (ILS), which relies on radio signals and the plane’s autopilot, allowing them to land automatically – but these systems are not available at smaller airports.

The team developed an optical positioning system using a camera and an infrared camera in poor weather, which can identify the runway and calculate a path for the landing aircraft.

A test flight was undertaken in May, when the four-seater plane made an entirely automatic landing in Wiener-Neustadt, Austria. Footage from the flight shows the test pilot sitting with his hands on his knees during the landing.

“Automatic landing is essential, especially in the context of the future role of aviation,” says Martin Kügler, research associate at the TUM Chair of Flight System Dynamics.

Test pilot Thomas Wimmer said: “The cameras already recognise the runway at a great distance from the airport.

“The system then guides the aircraft through the landing approach on a completely automatic basis and lands it precisely on the runway’s centerline.”

Existing European aviation rules state that passenger planes with more than 19 seats must have a minimum of two pilots in the cockpit.