Remote-Controlled Passenger Airliners – The Strongest Argument Yet for Data Link Testing!

That the military have been remotely controlling UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), often hundreds or even thousands of miles away from where the vehicle is actually operating is nothing new. So far, the UAVs that have been deployed have been quite modest in size. But eventually, this technology will, most likely, be used to control much larger vehicles including passenger airliners!

According to a recent (and excellent) article on The Economist web site called “This is your ground pilot speaking”, soon, a small twin-engined Jetstream commuter aircraft will take off from an aerodrome in Lancashire, England and fly towards Scotland – but on this occasion the main pilot won’t be in the cockpit. Instead, they will remain firmly on the ground, flying the plane from there. As this is a test flight, there will be a pilot in the aircraft in case something goes wrong.

The purpose of the flight is to see how well air-traffic controllers can communicate with the ground pilot through the aircraft and explore ways to make the radio and satellite links secure and reliable. However, engineers will also check the aircraft’s “sense and avoid” capability – systems to safely fly and control it autonomously if the communication link to the ground pilot breaks.

Clearly it is early days, but if we fast-forward a bit there is every possibility that one day, as we settle into our seats, we may find we are welcomed aboard by a “virtual pilot” who reassuring advises us that we (the passengers) will be cruising at 500 mph at a height of 35,000 feet while (s)he attains a height of may be around 30 feet, depending on which floor of the control building they are located on!

Personally, I am not too sure how happy I would be in that situation but this may become a reality for us all. One thing, I do know is that while testing voice and data transmission over radio and satellite networks is often regarded as a bit of an afterthought, here is one situation where such testing is going to be of paramount importance to ensure the pilot remains firmly in control.

As noted above, the aircraft will have its own ability to fly on safely in the event of a total loss of communication with the pilot, but just as we encounter times of slow internet connectivity (but not total loss) at home, in the office or even on our smart phones, so situations could arise when interferences such as thunderstorms, sunspots or terrain can slow down or restrict information flow between the aircraft and the pilot without causing a complete breakdown. In these circumstances, how will potential delays (latencies) and packet drops affect communication and ultimately the handling of the aircraft? Will the aircraft take over control and initiate its own manoeuvre, only to have the delayed pilot-initiated instruction arrive at the same time and cause confusion?

I ask these questions as someone who works for a company whose own network emulation technology has been deployed by the military and prime defence contractors to replicate the data links between the ground-based pilots and the UAVs so that extensive pre-deployment testing can be carried out right from the start of the project, in order to mitigate the risks of the UAV becoming uncontrolled. I would like to think that the same vigorous approach is going to be applied to the testing of communications links when remotely-controlled passenger aircraft take to the skies otherwise I’m going by ship, coach or car because, even though there are plans to automate these modes of transport too, they’re not thousands of feet up in the air!

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