How Airbus And Boeing Are Using Artificial Intelligence To Advance Autonomous Flight

Pilot-less jetliners may still be far off in the future due to several reasons, public trust in automated systems not being the least of them. However, this does not mean the software technology to support such operations has not developed in leaps and bounds. While there are several start-ups in tech-driven unmanned airborne vehicles, let’s take a look at how the two main aircraft manufacturers use artificial intelligence in the quest for safe autonomous flight.

C3PO and R2D2 next to ANA Star Wars livery
Both Airbus and Boeing are implementing Artificial Intelligence in the quest for more automated flight. Photo: Getty Images

AI will revolutionize aviation

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a divisive subject. Some herald it as the key solution to everything from Alzheimer’s and cancer to food shortages and climate change. Others, more pessimistically or dystopically inclined, say it will be the end of humanity or, at the very least, take most of our jobs.

One thing is for certain, though; AI is here to stay, and it will have a massive impact on our everyday lives in the future. Aviation is often critiqued for having been slow on the ball when it comes to AI. However, things have begun to change, and its various applications will transform the industry in the decades to come.

Data-driven sophisticated algorithms will revolutionize everything from ticket pricing, air traffic control, crew and maintenance schedules to aircraft assembly, natural language processing in the cockpit. And, of course, it will have an enormous impact on more advanced technology such as autonomous vision-based navigation or pilot-less planes, if you will.

A350 ATTOL project
A little over a year ago, Airbus completed a fully-automated take-off controlled by image-recognition software installed on an A350. Photo: Airbus

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Airbus using image recognition

A little over a year ago, on January 16th, 2020, Airbus completed the first fully automatic vision-based take-off and landing within the framework of its Autonomous Taxi, Take-Off and Landing (ATTOL) project. Rather than relying on an Instrument Landing System (ILS), the AI-controlled take-off was governed by image-recognition software installed on the aircraft.

Image recognition is software’s ability to identify people, places, objects, etc., in images. You are involved in it every time you respond to a prompt to identify yourself as a human online by clicking on all the images containing a cross-walk, traffic light, or motorcycle. In the video below, it is clearly distinguishable how the software reads the visual input of the aircraft’s surroundings to perform the take-off procedure.

The ATTOL project was completed in June last year. However, Airbus has stated that its goal is for autonomous technologies to improve flight operations and overall performance – not to reach autonomous flight as a target in itself. Pilots, the planemaker says, will remain at the heart of operations.

Loyal Wingman Boeing
Boeing is testing its Airpower Teaming Systems in Australia. Photo: Boeing

Boeing’s Phantom Works is leading the way in automated data-sharing

Over in the other corner, in December 2020, Boeing completed a series of test-flights exploring how high-performance uncrewed aircraft can operate together controlled by AI using onboard command and data sharing. Aircraft were added one by one over a period of ten days until five operated as an autonomous unit, reaching speeds of up to 167 miles per hour.

“The tests demonstrated our success in applying artificial intelligence algorithms to ‘teach’ the aircraft’s brain to understand what is required of it,” Emily Hughes, director of Phantom Works, Boeing’s prototyping arm for its defense branch, said in a statement shared with Vision Systems Design at the time.

“With the size, number and speed of aircraft used in the test, this is a very significant step for Boeing and the industry in the progress of autonomous mission systems technology,” Hughes continued.

While December’s test-flights were part of its defense part of the business, Boeing stated that the technologies developed from the program would not only inform its developmental Airpower Teaming System (ATS) but apply to all future autonomous aircraft.


Meanwhile, Boeing’s subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences, part of Boeing NeXt, is building smaller autonomous flight vehicles. This includes the Centaur, configured for autonomous flight featuring a detect-and-avoid technology supported by radar.

How soon would you get on a crewless aircraft? Are you excited about the prospects of autonomous flight? What do you consider to be the main issues? Let us know in the comments.