So there are some types of aircraft that can land under auto-pilot (or is that a trope?). Can those same planes go from stop (at the gate) to in-the-air flight without a pilot actually touching a control column/flight-stick?

Caveats: I'm not talking about UAV's. Also, I'm not concerned about "would you," but rather "could you."

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    $\begingroup$ There are two very different parts in your question. Take off and taxi. While CAT II equipped aircraft can land under autopilot and CAT III equipped aircraft can land and roll out under autopilot, there are no aircraft that could taxi under autopilot. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    May 11, 2014 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ Correct. Taxiways are a lot narrower than runways. This is assuming today's technology. Theoretically this could happen but the ramp area is a very busy place. A set of human eyes is a vital safety measure. $\endgroup$ May 12, 2014 at 13:44

3 Answers 3


If you are asking if a plane can be taken from the gate all the way to the sky by auto-pilot I'm quite certain the answer is no. Not because a plane can't configure itself for take off and power up the engines (I'm quite certain it can, though I would defer to more knowledgeable people for that). Not for that reason, but rather because there is no system in place to electronically guide an aircraft through a series of taxiways all the way to the base of the runway so that it can line up to take off in the first place.

Keep in mind, ATC gives a lot of instructions for ground operations, funnelling aircraft this way and that via taxiway A through Z. They'd have no way of telling an auto-pilot about these directions, there's no computer to send out signals and there is no voice recognition build into the plane. If you told the pilots, they would have no way to input the instructions into the autopilot, nor would the autopilot know what to do if it ever received such instructions. It just isn't designed to follow taxiways.

Also, beyond just taxiway layout, there are a lot of planes in close proximity on the ground, plus bunches of other important vehicles (fire trucks, fuel trucks, de-icers, etc.) Steering around all of those, faultlessly, would be quite the feat. We've only just gotten to the point where a vehicle can drive across open terrain without crashing itself, I think a plane navigating an airport (and doing it while minding ATC) is a bit of a ways off.

EDIT: Raidri's video does a much better job of showing the current state of driver less vehicles, and his comment is correct. I did underestimate how good the systems are these days.

That being said, I'm not changing my answer. There still, currently, is no way to convey ATC instructions to the aircraft.

As a point of clarification: I saw the question as asking about technology in it's current state. Will we eventually be able to do this. Heck yes, absolutely. A great deal of the technology is in place and what's left is either right on the horizon or close to it. FAA clearance will probably take some time, but we'll get there. I was mainly answer the question from the perspective of modern tech and what is currently ready to be installed on a plane.

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    $\begingroup$ I think you underestimate the current status of driverless cars: youtube.com/watch?v=dk3oc1Hr62g. An airport yould be more city streets like open terrain. $\endgroup$
    – Raidri
    May 11, 2014 at 10:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Raidri Wow, good catch, thanks :). After driving 6 hours yesterday and looking forward to another 4 today all I can say is this: sign me up. $\endgroup$
    – Jae Carr
    May 11, 2014 at 13:17

"could" you : yes. After pushback (and away from the gate area in general) airports are more-or-less obstacle free. Modern GPS is plenty accurate enough to follow a taxiway sequence up to the hold-short line (this is a much simpler problem than driving an automated car around town [1]). A cheap rangefinder in the nose would prevent goosing the plane in front.

After the plane is on the active runway it's just a matter of configuring a few things and running the power up. No problem at all with today's technology.

"would" you: no. Such a system would be rather expensive, someone has to program it, and it provides no particular advantages over having the pilot steer it following a $5 map, or at smaller airports just the signs beside the taxiway.

[1] Support vehicles at an airport are not really an issue: aircraft have absolute, unquestioned right-of-way in much the same manner as freight trains. Even the fire department waits for the tower to approve crossing a runway.

  • $\begingroup$ Not to nitpick too much, but there's a huge difference between "has right of way" and "all objects always get out of he way all of the time." If you're using a computer program with no cross checking, it had better be the later that's true. As a collegue of mine is fond of saying, "never overestimate the user", I think we have to assume that, at some point, someone will be in the way, probably on accident but still... I think your underestimating the complexity this system would need. $\endgroup$
    – Jae Carr
    May 11, 2014 at 13:21
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    $\begingroup$ Collisions between taxiing aircraft and ground vehicles happen already, plus the occasional blowover from someone taking the access road right behind the A380 spooling up on the active. The anti-goosing sensor might even reduce the accidents. The question asks "could you..." today and you can. Not with today's aircraft (which are about 20 years old technologically) but with a complete, brand-new system. I do not expect to see one this century outside of a droneport. $\endgroup$
    – paul
    May 11, 2014 at 14:08
  • $\begingroup$ "and it provides no particular advantages over having the pilot steer it following a $5 map". It offers the same advantages that auto-land offers - the ability to continue operating during reduced visibility. $\endgroup$ May 12, 2014 at 12:29
  • $\begingroup$ If the visibility is so low that you can't follow the white line then you won't be leaving the gate area, possibly due to lack of passengers if the same fog closed the local roads. Yes, CatIII can autoland in dense fog but landing is not an option. Takeoff is. $\endgroup$
    – paul
    May 14, 2014 at 21:41
  • $\begingroup$ No aircraft flying today can takeoff by itself. Even "auto land" requires pilots to set up the "Flight Management Computer", position the aircraft to intercept the final approach course, and then physically operate the flap lever and landing gear lever. $\endgroup$ Sep 17, 2016 at 22:05

If you're simply asking "does this exist today?", then the answer is simply no.

I believe there are no automatic take-off systems currently.

Don't forget drones are flown by the remote human pilots; I don't think even they have an automatic takeoff system.

Regarding "would it be technically possible as an experiment?", Paul has explained the situation.

  • $\begingroup$ There were two reasons I suggested not to consider drones/UAVs. First, some would say they are remotely controlled, so there is a pilot, like you said. I also know that they can be programmed to follow flight paths/patterns, I just don't know how much of their flight can be set up to be auto-controlled (via GPS, etc). Second, they are (very soon, if not now) going to be fully automated (such as what Amazon is planning). This is worrisome, at least to me, in that we will (likely) have multiple aircraft, with only a few monitors, flying through low airspace. $\endgroup$
    – CGCampbell
    May 11, 2014 at 11:01
  • $\begingroup$ Just to add insight, Drones take off and land under local pilots control, (delay involved iirc), and inflight they are passed to the people in the ever so famous shipping containers afterwards. $\endgroup$
    – Bassinator
    Nov 15, 2014 at 19:27

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