AI - Artificial Intelligence

AI is in the Air – Artificial Intelligence in Aviation

Reiner Hertl
6 minutes

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a driving force, even in aviation. AI learns constantly, thinks independently, and works with its developers to advance entire industries. In this article, we will shed light on everything from aircraft manufacturing through fleet maintenance to booking tickets. How, for example, does big data support technologies and everyday aviation tasks? And to what extent can AI completely take over particular tasks?

Pioneering aviation projects: four examples of networked cooperation

Work is set to begin in 2019 at Rolls Royce’s research centre for artificial intelligence in Dahlewitz, Brandenburg. “The German artificial intelligence hub will demonstrate how industrial corporations can use AI to contribute to value creation,” says Carline Gorski, Director of the engine manufacturer’s R2 Data Labs. Over the next few years, the British corporation plans to invest in artificial intelligence and use it to analyse engine data in real time. Machine learning will make it possible to predict maintenance requirements in advance. “Engine Health Management” as illustrated by marketing director Richard Goodhead using the new Pearl generation of engines, can make it easier to resolve issues and thus increase the availability of the aircraft. “The engine talks to us and we talk to the engine.” Based on an engine network in which every unit has its own profile and a timeline for issues, the system uses an algorithm which continuously analyses the engine data and recommends maintenance activities for engineers to perform.

The Brandenburg facility is just one example of how artificial intelligence supports aviation technology. Will certain work processes soon be completely automated? Before we turn our gazes towards Salzburg, how are things looking in the Hamburg Aviation aerospace cluster?

There, at the Centre for Applied Aeronautical Research (ZAL), CEO Roland Gerhards is certain that “no jobs will be lost through the introduction of robotics”, even though increasing numbers of smart robots, known as cobots, are being introduced. Rather than replacing humans, these robots work side by side with them, according to Gerhards’ interview with, which was published shortly before the second ZAL Innovation Days at the end of February. This year, industry attention at the ZAL event will be focused on the overarching topics of robotics and automation.

In Salzburg, one of the projects currently being undertaken by the Aeronautical Research Group, a centre of excellence for air transportation at the University of Salzburg, involves determining how approach routes can be better organised. The group is using mathematical models and their own NAVSIM simulator to calculate precisely when an aircraft should leave its holding pattern, a calculation which is “extremely difficult, particularly during severe weather, fog, or strong winds.” Computer scientist Carl-Herbert Rokitansky, head of the group, which works with cooperation partners like Eurocontrol, ESA, air traffic control companies, airlines and airports, predicts that artificial intelligence will gradually take over the work of air traffic controllers.

“Aviation is currently on the threshold of a radical change driven by digitisation, unmanned flight systems, and Reduced-Crew Operations (RCO),” emphasised Dr Jens Schiefele at the inauguration celebration held at the end of 2017 to mark the opening of the new Digital Aviation & Analytics Lab in Frankfurt. Schiefele, the Director of Research & Rapid Development at this Boeing research and development centre, is surrounded by a highly specialised international team of around 60 engineers, computer and data scientists, user interface designers and other scientists. These experts are working on a wide range of research and development projects, such as the smart aircraft cabin of the future.

How could the cockpits of passenger and cargo aircraft be altered by AI-assisted flight?

Twice as many passenger aircraft, fewer pilots, more AI

In one of our most recent articles, Current Trends in Aviation – the Outlook for 2019, we discussed the future demand for commercial aircraft. Boeing also estimates that fleet expansions and replacements of older models over the next 20 years will cause the total number of passenger aircraft to double. At the most recent Paris air show, Boeing manager Mike Sinnett predicted a future demand for approximately 41,000 commercial aircraft, for which around 617,000 pilots would be required. This impending global shortage of next-generation pilots is a matter of increasing focus for airlines. “Autonomous flight is one way to resolve this problem,” Sinnett explains. Boeing’s artificial intelligence is said to be able to handle all the issues pilots face.

The Swiss banking giant UBS presented a study on the future of the aviation market according to which just one pilot could be at the helm of each aircraft within 4-5 years. Thanks to upgrade and retrofitting programs like those being developed in the US, this does not necessarily require the construction of new aircraft. Airbus and Thales, for example, have been researching single-pilot cockpits for a long time, and Boeing has already tested the Alias technology, which uses an autonomous robotic co-pilot to land the aircraft, in the B737.

The Alias automation system, developed by Aurora Flight Sciences, sits in the co-pilot’s place and uses a gripping arm to operate the levers and control column. The flight robot is equipped with artificial intelligence and constantly learns new information. In 2017, it required around a month of simulator training to learn the cockpit controls sufficiently to perform all in-air tasks and land the aircraft safely.

Passengers’ reservations about the one-person cockpit and autonomous flight in general vary from country to country, and even between age groups. Asked whether the public would even accept unmanned aircraft, Sinnett says, “We must first convince ourselves. If we succeed, we can convince the public.”

It can be assumed that cargo flights will be the first to be equipped with new autonomous flight technology, and passenger flights will be the last.

Managing baggage with intelligent machines

International airline association IATA expects the number of passengers transported to rise to almost 4.6 billion in 2019, a figure which will also stretch some German airports to their capacity limits. The expected doubling of passenger volume by 2040 also means doubling the volume of luggage. In order to cope with this amount of baggage, AI will revolutionise baggage handling over the next decade and intelligent machines will autonomously deliver luggage. “It will take a while, but artificial intelligence will realise its potential for more service-orientated baggage handling. As a result, luggage handling will become more reliable and airports and airlines will be able to offer their passengers custom-tailored baggage services,” says Ilya Gutlin, President of SITA Air Travel Solutions, a provider of communications and IT services and solutions for aviation focusing on technological innovations.

AI airline bookings revolutionise holiday reservations

When exactly is the best time to book hotel rooms and flights? This is an area in which price fluctuations can easily run into multiple digits. The Hopper app uses artificial intelligence to search for the perfect moment to book the cheapest flights – and it does so so successfully that the Lufthansa Group is entering into a research alliance with the Canadian price prediction specialists in order to predict the demand for flights even more precisely. “This data-based system will enable us to offer our customers even better custom-tailored offerings in future,” explains Christian Langer, Vice President of Digital Strategy at the Lufthansa Group.

That brings us to the end of today’s scenic flight over aviation’s ever-changing AI landscape. As artificial intelligence continues to redraw the aeronautical charts, we will continue to guide you through the latest technological developments.

Main image: Unsplash – franckinjapan

by Reiner Hertl

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