Average layman here. Assuming the latest generation of planes/avionics rolling out of the factory today, how autonomous are commercial passenger jets? Obviously, autopilot has been around for decades, but what are the limits of its capabilities? Can it take off and land by itself? What can be done remotely, if anything?

Watching a typical airliner-crew-is-dead-what-can-we-do-now movie caused me to think of this question.


They're not really autonomous, they're mostly automated.

I'll lift this description from Wikipedia despite being written for cars (emphasis mine):

Autonomous means self-governance. Many historical projects related to vehicle autonomy have been automated (made to be automatic) due to a heavy reliance on artificial hints in their environment, such as magnetic strips. Autonomous control implies satisfactory performance under significant uncertainties in the environment and the ability to compensate for system failures without external intervention.

While most autopilots will fare fairly well under "significant uncertainties in the environment" (read e.g. "severe turbulence"), they are not equally capable "to compensate for system failures without external intervention". Even the Airbus' autopilots revert authority to the pilots if the system degrades.

Even knowing the destination airport, they need a pilot to insert the flight plan into the flight computer, they cannot compute it by themselves.

They cannot take evasive action in case of dangerous situations, but they can only warn the pilot (see EGPWS and TCAS RAs).

They cannot even properly recognize bad weather (say, a thunderstorm) and eventually plan diversions around it.

They could not land an aircraft by themselves, as they generally lack control over the aircraft configuration.

What they can do is blindly follow the flight plan given, so they are automatic, but not autonomous.

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    $\begingroup$ Good stuff but I disagree on the landing comment. Auto-land capabilities has been around since the days of the Concorde $\endgroup$ – Dave Aug 29 '17 at 12:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Dave that's still automatic, not autonomous: the autopilot cannot negotiate a landing clearance, it cannot initiate a go-around in case of emergency, it cannot lower flaps and gear, it cannot select an alternate airport in case of need (and cannot recognize the case of need), it cannot land without the ILS antenna, i.e. it relies on artificial hints in their environment. It is automatic, not autonomous. $\endgroup$ – Federico Aug 29 '17 at 12:48
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    $\begingroup$ I will agree with that but strictly speaking they can land by them selves if set up properly $\endgroup$ – Dave Aug 29 '17 at 12:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Dave "if set up properly". That's the point. It's not autonomous if it needs "set up", and if it is not autonomous, is not strictly "by themselves". $\endgroup$ – Federico Aug 29 '17 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ I think the distinction here between autonomous and automatic is a little arbitrary. The case in point being that TCAS has been integrated into AP already (e.g. the A380). Other feats like one-engine-out compensation, complex RNAV approaches, pitch-up overspeed protection, windshear modes, radios that identify the station, and emergency descent modes would be seen 60 years ago as amazing feats of computer decision-making. $\endgroup$ – Cody P Aug 29 '17 at 20:51

Even the most modern aircraft autopilots of today are unable to be "autonomous".

The aircraft can not be programmed to takeoff or land by itself. Auto landings are possible, but only with inputs by the pilot.

The routing can be data linked to the aircraft, but it still needs the pilot to press the button to load it into the flight computer. After takeoff the A/P can follow the programmed route, but it is unable to climb or descend without input from the pilot. Any change in the routing (like avoiding thunderstorms) must be manually inputted by the pilot.

Currently, nothing can currently be done remotely. Remote control could be designed into an airliner, but it just hasn't been done yet, and probably never will.


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