The Airbus DragonFly syatem on an A350 aircraft.
A350 MSN59 : Dragonfly flight test. Photo Credit: Airbus

Airbus tests new technologies to enhance pilot assistance

LONDON – Airbus UpNext, a wholly owned subsidiary of Airbus, has started testing new, on ground and in-flight, pilot assistance technologies on an A350-1000 test aircraft.

Known as DragonFly, the technologies being demonstrated include automated emergency diversion in cruise, automatic landing and taxi assistance and are aimed at evaluating the feasibility and pertinence of further exploring autonomous flight systems in support of safer and more efficient operations.

“These tests are one of several steps in the methodical research of technologies to further enhance operations and improve safety,” said Isabelle Lacaze, Head of DragonFly demonstrator, Airbus UpNext.

“Inspired by biomimicry, the systems being tested have been designed to identify features in the landscape that enable an aircraft to “see” and safely manoeuver autonomously within its surroundings, in the same way that dragonflies are known to have the ability to recognise landmarks.”

During the A350 flight test campaign, the technologies were able to assist pilots in-flight, managing a simulated incapacitated crew member event, and during landing and taxiing operations.

Taking into account external factors such as flight zones, terrain and weather conditions, the aircraft was able to generate a new flight trajectory plan and communicate with both Air Traffic Control (ATC) and the airline Operations Control Centre.

Airbus UpNext has also explored features for taxi assistance, which were tested in real-time conditions at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport. The technology provides the crew with audio alerts in reaction to obstacles, assisted speed control, and guidance to the runway using a dedicated airport map.

In addition to these capabilities, Airbus UpNext is launching a project to prepare the next generation of computer vision-based algorithms to advance landing and taxi assistance.

These tests were made possible through cooperation with Airbus subsidiaries and external partners including Cobham, Collins Aerospace, Honeywell, Onera and Thales.

DragonFly was partially funded by the French Civil Aviation Authority (DGAC) as part of the French Stimulus plan, which is part of the European Plan, Next Generation EU, and the France 2030 plan.

What is biomimicry?

Biologically-inspired engineering – or biomimicry – has led Airbus to many of creative solutions, from the “sharklet” wing-tip design that reduces drag, to their fello’fly demonstrator that mimics the formation flying of snow geese for improved performance.

The latest demonstrator to use biomimicry is DragonFly, inspired by – you guessed it – the dragonfly. A dragonfly has phenomenal vision, the ability to see in 360°, and can recognise landmarks, which in turn help it to define its territorial boundaries.

The systems which Airbus UpNext is developing and testing are similarly designed to review and identify features in the landscape that enable the aircraft to “see” and safely manoeuvre within its surroundings. 

So how does it work? 

DragonFly could be a game-changer when it comes to de-risking emergency operations. Its focus is on three key areas, each one drawing on a combination of data captured during flight and a vast corpus of flight information to promote automated yet intelligent decision making. 

DragonFly offers a solution to help ensure safe flight and landing. If the crew are unable to control the aircraft, the onboard function detects the issue and automatically selects the most suitable airport to redirect the aircraft towards. 

But of course, flight paths and external factors are complex and changing. A dragonfly scans its surroundings and adapts its journey accordingly.

The Airbus UpNext DragonFly A350 demonstrator does much the same thing, considering external factors such as flight zones, terrain and weather conditions as it chooses where to land.

The But unlike a regular dragonfly, our DragonFly also benefits from a constant channel of communication between the aircraft and both Air Traffic Control and the Operations Control Centre of the airline to ensure a safe and coordinated approach.

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