Are Self-Flying Planes in Our Future?

gece33/Getty Images

A robot just successfully flew an aircraft for two hours.

Airlines and engineers are always on the hunt to improve and advance airplane technology. Airbus revealed plans to develop a plane with flapping wings to help reduce turbulence, and German technology firm Diehl designed a "voice-controlled lavatory." But an even crazier idea could be taking to the skies: self-flying planes.

Yes, last week the Air Force had a robot successfully fly for two hours at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, according to New Scientist. This ROBOpilot, as it's called, is more than just the typical autopilot found on all commercial flights with more than 20 seats. In addition to controlling navigation, speed, altitude, and thrust, it has robotic arms to manage the cockpit controls like a pilot and can read the plane's data and instruments in real-time.

"It looks like an impressive achievement in terms of robotics," said Louise Dennis of the University of Liverpool. "Unlike an autopilot which has direct access to the controls and sensors, the robot is in the place of a human pilot and has to work the controls and reads the dials physically."

The ROBOpilot is also capable of being removed, so the plane could be used by a human pilot reducing the expense of making a specially-designed aircraft.

"Imagine being able to rapidly and affordably convert a general aviation aircraft, like a Cessna or Piper, into an unmanned aerial vehicle, having it fly a mission autonomously, and then returning it back to its original manned configuration," said CRI senior scientist Dr. Alok Das. "ROBOpilot offers the benefits of unmanned operations without the complexity and upfront cost associated with the development of new unmanned vehicles."

While there's no indication a robot will be flying your plane any time soon, researchers behind the project believe they could man cargo planes and planes involved in reconnaissance missions in the near future.