Honeywell Wants to Teach Airliners How to Taxi

And that’s even harder than automating flight

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Honeywell Wants to Teach Airliners How to Taxi

Honeywell is experimenting with an autopilot not to fly the plane but to taxi it, the Wall Street Journal reports.  It’s harder than it may seem because the biggest problem—sensing and avoiding objects—is particularly thorny in crowded airports.

The system should one day enable controllers to maneuver a plane on the tarmac through direct, computer-to-computer links, without the messiness of oral back-and-forth with a pilot. Such an autopilot would then close the circle of flight automation from takeoff to parking. Maybe someday robots will even put your luggage in the trunk of your car.

The U.S. Navy has long had an interest in such technology because its carrier decks must integrate up to 60 manned and unmanned aircraft sitting or taxiing on just 4.5 acres of metal. That requires not only sense-and-avoid capability but also a routing algorithm, much like the one you’d need to order numbered squares in a game board that offered just one blank space for wiggle room. MIT has worked up such an algorithm for the Navy and confirmed it with a computer simulation.  The plan is one day to outfit a carrier with the necessary sensors and give the program a full-dress rehearsal.

It’s interesting to consider which parts of human expertise are easiest to automate. For flying and for car-driving, it’s the middle part—witness cruise control. Next easiest, for cars, is parking—today’s best systems will even parallel park. But in other fields, automation often starts by gnawing at the ends of a process, and only later chomps its way toward the middle.

In chess programming, for instance, the machine first mastered the opening, then the endgame, and finally the middlegame. Reason: the opening can be played from a stored “book” of moves, and the endgame can be worked out exactly, just as you’d work out a game of tic-tac-toe. Only the middlegame requires the computer to “think.”

The same seems to apply to lawyering. The preparation for a lawsuit—discovery, which consists of searching many documents—is falling to automation now. The prediction of how a lawsuit will go—necessary to decide whether to bring the case in the first place—is also on the verge of falling.  The middle part—the actual arguing of the case—has so far remained firmly in the hands of human beings.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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