Automatic plane landing made possible without ground-based systems

Self-driving and self-parking cars have been the hype in the automobile industry for the recent years but that's harder to pull off when it comes to autonomous planes. Not just automatic takeoff and flight, a big problem is automatic landing. While that feature is actually standard with commercial planes and large airports, it's almost impossible with smaller aircraft and airports with no infrastructure to support it. That could be a thing of the past if this new vision-assisted navigation takes off, pun intended.

Automatic landings on commercial systems are almost easy peasy thanks to technologies both on the plane and on the ground. Sadly, that won't scale down to smaller more private planes and it could pose a problem for a future of self-driving air taxis. Such a flying car might not be allowed to take off at all if there's no assurance of a successful and safe landing in any condition.

Smaller planes do have GPS systems for autopilot but they become unreliable when landing is concerned. GPS signals, however, are always at the mercy of atmospheric conditions which may not be detected by the receiver on the planes. The solution presented by researchers at the Technical University of Munich is almost genius in its simplicity.

The idea is to supplement the GPS with a system that works no matter the weather condition or time of day. That comes in the form of an optical reference system, a.k.a. vision-assisted navigation, that uses both normal and infrared cameras. The system then uses specialized software to determine the plane's position based on the camera data, compares it with GPS signals, and then calculates a flight path and landing procedure for the plane.

The team made a successful landing in May that utilized this completely automated system. It was enough to convince the test pilot but it will take a lot more tests, not to mention regulatory scrutiny, before it becomes a new feature in private and small planes.