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Airbus Makes AI Fly High

Airbus is putting the AI in airplane with one of its latest patents.

Photo by Daniel Eledut via Unsplash.

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“If I’m back here, and you’re back here, then who’s flying the plane?” 

Airbus is seeking to patent tech that uses AI to determine a flight plan. First, this tech, which Airbus dubbed a “routing engine,” receives a request to create a flight plan, which includes information regarding the aircraft’s destination and criteria on how the requester wants to optimize the flight, such as using the least amount of fuel or getting to the destination as quickly as possible. 

Then, using machine learning, this tech calculates a flight route that includes the longitude and latitude of an aircraft, the altitude and time, and potential constraints on performance, such as structure stress or fuel consumption, based on what the requester wants to prioritize. 

For example, if a pilot or flight controller wants to get a flight from Los Angeles to New York at the lowest possible cost, this routing engine could calculate how to make this flight using the least amount of fuel, taking into account things like environmental factors, number of passengers, and how it may impact the aircraft. 

“Typically, in mission planning systems for aircraft it is required the intervention of a human operator in order to define a flight plan through a dedicated human machine interface,” Airbus said in its filing. “Steps are performed by a human operator, rendering optimization tasks long and iterative by nature, unable to provide high quality solution(s) in a reasonable timeframe.” 

Photo via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

As Airbus noted in this, flight plans are usually human-generated. Adding AI into the mix adds another example to the ever-growing list of the ways this tech is weaving its way into processes that are generally done by people, for people. 

Creating a flight plan involves thinking critically about the pilot’s priorities for a flight and the potential obstacles that an aircraft could encounter. Leaving this job to AI could limit human errors, making the job of a pilot or air traffic controller much easier and minimizing any potential risks of that flight. 

A sizable chunk of Airbus’ business comes from manufacturing commercial aircraft, seeing revenues of nearly $9 billion in its commercial segment in the first quarter. The company also has a smaller defense segment, which made roughly $2.5 billion in that time period. 

But with revenues down in both segments year over year – around 5% and 6% respectively – Integrating a proprietary AI could be a way to attract airlines to its aircraft over competitors. That AI could also lend a critical hand amid the shortage of pilots, both in the commercial airline industry and the U.S. Airforce

The other thing to consider, however, is what’s at risk if this AI makes a mistake. It’s the same argument for slowing the pace of implementing AI other into human-centered industries, like healthcare: Given that passengers’ safety is in the hands of Airbus’ machine learning routing engine, the tech needs to be ironclad before making its way into customers’ aircraft.