Has there ever been a fully automated takeoff, cruise, and landing of a large aircraft similar to commercial airliners?

In fact, has there ever been a fully automatic flight of any pure aircraft whatsoever? This is gonna sound crazy, but the only thing I know that comes close is the Soviet Space Shuttle Buran. It launched unmanned and returned successfully under computer control, including its glide and landing.

So I'm interested in automatic aircraft similar to large commercial airlines. BTW, remote control toy planes wouldn't count because that is not automated (a person is manually controlling it).

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    $\begingroup$ NYTimes article about state of the art $\endgroup$ – Pierre B Sep 12 '16 at 9:41
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    $\begingroup$ I think it's safe to assume you're talking about normal VFR conditions with no traffic, no ATC clearances needed, and limited to no mechanical failures. See aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/1802/… for more possible issues that human pilots deal with manually. $\endgroup$ – Cody P Sep 12 '16 at 16:24
  • $\begingroup$ The American military space vehicle the X-37 does the same thing as the Buran did. Some F16s and other aircraft have been outfitted with controls that allows them to serve as target drones but it's unclear how automated the flight paths are. $\endgroup$ – Spehro Pefhany Sep 13 '16 at 21:10
  • $\begingroup$ Didn't the mythbusters episode about talking someone through landing say that autopilot could land the plane? $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Sep 13 '16 at 21:29

The book The Glass Cage describes a fully autopilot-controlled military test flight in 1947. The plane was a C-54 Skymaster with seven men aboard. According to this source, the pilot aligned the plane on the runway for takeoff, but the takeoff, course control, and landing were performed by autopilot with no human engagement. See also this report from the Chicago Tribune at the time.

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    $\begingroup$ Great find, thank you! And welcome to the site! $\endgroup$ – DrZ214 Sep 12 '16 at 4:31
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    $\begingroup$ I'd note that it doesn't specify whether the actual landing was performed by the aircraft: only that it tracked the glideslope. It may be that the pilot finished the landing - that wouldn't surprise me, as it's quite a tricky thing for an aircraft to do without a radar altimeter $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Sep 12 '16 at 12:26
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    $\begingroup$ @JonStory, "At dawn the following day, the C-54 reached the English coast. Still under the control of the autopilot, it began its descent, lowered its landing gear, lined itself up with an airstrip at a Royal air Force base in Oxfordshire, and executed a perfect landing. Captain Wells then lifted his hands from his lap and parked the plane." I'd say the plane did all the work... $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Sep 12 '16 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ Whoops, stopped reading too early! $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Sep 12 '16 at 16:33

Fully autonomous flights have been demonstrated- but not not in 'large commercial' aircraft.

The Dassault Aviation AVE-D 'Petit_Duc' drone has demonstrated fully autonomous flight:

The flight, watched by representatives of France's Délégation Générale pour l'Armement (DGA) armaments procurement agency, comprised a completely automated sequence: roll from parking spot, runway alignment, takeoff, in-flight maneuvers, landing, braking and rolling back to the parking apron.

Helicopters also have demonstrated this ability. A Boeing-modified MD530F helicopter has demonstrated fully autonomous flight:

... this time, the helicopter did it entirely on its own — with no humans involved. It was the first fully autonomous flight of a full-sized chopper, ever.

Unmanned little Bird

Unmanned Little bird, image from wired.com

Note: I've considered only those where it is explicitly mentioned that 'full' flight was autonomous. Not the capability alone.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting, but who or what is in that photo lying on his back while a robo heli flies around? lol. $\endgroup$ – DrZ214 Sep 12 '16 at 3:00
  • $\begingroup$ @ymb1 Why did you delete your answer? It was a good one. You could've just added a note. $\endgroup$ – aeroalias Sep 12 '16 at 3:03
  • $\begingroup$ I don't see how. The popsci article you linked said that takeoff and landing were done manually. If it's just automated cruise then I don't see how that's much different from autopilot. $\endgroup$ – DrZ214 Sep 12 '16 at 3:05
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    $\begingroup$ @DrZ214 Its a dummy. They are testing the helicopter for SAR operations, I guess. $\endgroup$ – aeroalias Sep 12 '16 at 3:05
  • $\begingroup$ if you want you could add the DA42, last year we did a full automated flight (FlySmart/Lufo project) $\endgroup$ – Federico Sep 12 '16 at 5:00

Not as big as a commercial airliner (but bigger than many people realise), at the time of its introduction into the USAF, Global Hawk flew from Edwards Air Base in California to Australia without any human control (including takeoff and landing).

Following incidents like 9/11 and GermanWings, it would be sensible to introduce a feature into all passenger airliners now to automatically land at the nearest airport - and once the feature had been invoked, it could not be revoked. Better yet, largely remove most of the pilot's work.

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    $\begingroup$ Adding a feature like that as a response to infrequent catastrophes sounds like it will cause more trouble that it will fix. $\endgroup$ – zeta-band Sep 12 '16 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ It's an excellent idea, in the sense that automation is far more consistent than any human could ever hope to be. But then there's the automation paradox, which basically means that it will get the humans out of practice for situations that the installed automation honestly can't handle. Now you're riding an airplane in trouble without an autopilot, and the human pilot is effectively inexperienced. Is the occasional situation like that worth thousands of prevented accidents due to pilot error or hijacking? You decide. $\endgroup$ – AaronD Sep 12 '16 at 22:02
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    $\begingroup$ The problem with being unable to revoke the feature is that you can end up killing all your passengers. First, the nearest airport may not be suitable for landing for any of a large variety of reasons. Even if it is, it could well be the case that landing at the nearest airport is a considerably worse idea than landing at the second or third nearest airport. Beyond that, conditions (such as crosswind) can change during the landing such that conditions are no longer suitable for landing, even though they were earlier. $\endgroup$ – cjs Sep 13 '16 at 4:12
  • $\begingroup$ The first paragraph is interesting, but would be improved if a source could be provided. The second paragraph is kind of off-topic commentary. Also, that suggestion opens up a huge can of worms... like how the feature is activated in the first place. Most answers to that cause more problems than they solve. $\endgroup$ – reirab Sep 13 '16 at 21:20

There is no current aircraft capable of fully automated flight in all stages of flight as equipped and operated according to the POH. The closest you can get is from climb out to landing. Currently you could fly the takeoff and activate the auto pilot once established on climb out (probably some time after the gear came up or around then). Let the FMS fly the plane, then setup the auto-land to take it home. But you still need to get it off the ground.

There are various ways to guide a plane in flight via automated systems. Most modern airliners contain an FMS unit capable of using a variety of navigation methods and control of steering. Smaller planes that don't utilize an FMS may have GPSS (GPS Steering). GPS Steering is becoming more common on smaller planes from what I have seen.

Auto-land capabilities have been around for some time, one of the earliest planes to have it was the Concorde. There are many airframes that now contain auto-land capabilities but they are not utilized all the time.

It should be noted that all of these things need to be programed by the pilot before the flight. Any deviations by ATC while in route would also need to be programed.


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