Why we already have self-driving airplanes

Why is it more difficult to build self-driving cars than self-driving aircraft? Aren’t airplanes more complex?

The first auto-pilot system was demonstrated way back in 1914, and became standard devices on aircraft since the 1930’s. In today aircrafts, autopilots are capable of controlling every part of the flight from just after take-off to before landing. That recent flight you took might have been more than 90% self-driven.

Now flying a plane is certainly more complex than driving a car. An aircraft can rotate around all three of its axes. Pilots must constantly monitor aircraft altitude, attitude and trajectory. The cockpit of an aircraft has a multitude of knobs, dials and indicators that make a car’s dashboard seem like a child’s toy.

Yet, despite all this complexity, the air is far more predictable than the road. Sure, there are occasional thunderstorms and turbulence, but pilots don’t have to contend with drunk drivers, construction barriers or dogs and children that can dash across the road at a moment’s notice.

Auto-pilots are easier to build than self-driven cars because predictability is more important for automation than simplicity. To decide if a task can be automated, ‘Is it predictable?‘ is a more relevant question to ask than ‘Is it complex?

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