Autonomous Aviation Leap Made by German Universities

German aviation researchers have made the autonomous landing of small aircraft possible without the assistance of any kind of ground-based system.

Autonomous Aviation Leap Made by German Universities
Modified research aircraft Diamond DA42 of the research project C2Land of the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the Technical University of Braunschweig. Andreas Dekiert/C2Land

The Technical University of Munich (TUM) only weeks ago enjoyed the gratifying success of a long collaboration with their neighboring research partners at Technische Universität Braunschweig toward a common aviation problem: the fully autonomous landing of a small aircraft.

While large-scale aircraft of every sort routinely utilize automatic landing technology such as Instrument Landing System (ILS) antennas and satellite navigation all over the world, these digi-luxuries have long been denied to aviation at smaller airports, effectively disabling many flights when atmospheric visibility is less than optimal. If the pilots cannot see well enough to guide these planes manually, the planes are simply grounded and many dollars in business senselessly lost. 

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Partnering with the German federal government, TUM and TU Braunschweig designed a project entitled "C2Land." The objective of this collective initiative was to develop a means by which small planes could land without any ground-based support at all.

The initial trouble with the GPS-run autopilot system that these research aircraft utilized was that GPS remains notoriously sensitive to atmospheric disturbances, which in turn leads to inconsistencies in measurement data.

These GPS-oriented systems called upon pilots to manually take over the plane no later than 60 meters from a touchdown point in order to ensure a safe landing.

TU Braunschweig's solution to this dilemma was the development of a bespoke optical reference system that includes the use of one camera set to normal visibility standards and a second camera set to infrared for poorer conditions. This unique image integration platform allows the processor to accurately determine the aircraft's position relative to the runway at significant distances. 

Watch the full video to further appreciate this great leap forward in modern aviation. 

TUM doubled down for their contribution to the obstacle at hand by developing an entirely automated control system for all of their own research planes, which are typically Diamond DA42 models that have been modified to internal specifications. In May of this year, equipped with a Fly-by-Wire system (also developed in-house by TUM) that worked in conjunction with TU Braunschweig's two mounted cameras, the TUM planes were able to execute a fully autonomous landing with no additional ground support for the first time ever.

This rewarding success by the German researchers represents an economically viable and socially important piece of progress for the future of small aircraft as it enables a far wider range of possibilities for the potential uses of these planes as well as for the airports that cater to them.

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