TRACY, CALIF. —
Last week, at a small airport on the dusty plains of eastern San Francisco, a red --and-
The white helicopter gently lifted into the air, hovering a few feet on the tarmac.
In addition to the small black cube hanging on the nose, it looks like any other helicopter.
Local officials spent a week testing the aircraft to obtain a new emergency service to be launched on January, which will respond to 911 calls through the air.
But when the helicopter moves police and medical personnel over the San Joaquin Valley, it will support a more ambitious project.
This black cube is part of an increasing effort to make small passenger planes that can fly on their own.
Today, the helicopter is driven by experienced pilots.
But the new emergency service will be run by Silicon Valley startup SkyRyse, which intends to add small helicopters and other passenger planes with hardware and software that allows autonomous flights, rely on many of the same technologies as driverless cars.
These include 360-
Degree cameras and radar sensors are built into the aircraft head.
"There are a lot of things that have to be done before autonomous planes start manned flights," said Mark Groden of United Airlines.
Founder and CEO of SkyRyse.
"But we are developing technologies that can take us there.
"The defense contractor, Sikorsky, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, and Xwing, another Silicon Valley startup, are forming similar technologies.
Others, including Aurora, now owned by Boeing, are exploring autonomous flights to build a new type of electrical aircraft for the flight taxi service.
Uber's initial business plan for the air taxi service, which it hopes to launch in five to ten years, says it will eventually remove the pilot from the plane.
The motivation is obvious: Pilots are expensive and they need to rest between flights.
Autonomous flights can drive new passenger services and even change the economic situation of today's airlines.
With companies like Aurora making aircraft for autonomous flights, entrepreneurs like Groden believe it is more realistic to adjust existing aircraft.
However, any road will take a while due to technical and cultural reasons.
Dan Patt, CEO of robot company Vecna, said: "It's not just about making things that can fly on their own, he used to work at DARPA, the Defense Department's research arm, he has worked with Sikorsky and other companies on autonomous flights.
"It's about establishing a proof that it's a safe way to fly.
"Government and industry have long been committed to the automation of the passenger flight segment --
"Autonomous driving" is part of the Native American language --
In some ways, building an autonomous aircraft is easier than building a driverless car, which has been tested on public roads for a long time.
The plane runs in a wide range
Open space rather than narrow roads for crowded pedestrians and other vehicles.
Flying a plane or helicopter is a highly procedural task that computers are usually good.
Small drones have shown the possibility of autonomous flight.
Skydio, a Silicon Valley startup created by a former Google engineer, sells a $2,500 drone that can follow you through the forest as you wear it in the woods
Adam Bry, the company's chief executive, was also involved in Google's drone delivery project.
Mathematical system based on digital camera and real-time image analysis
Suitable for passenger planes.
"Technical challenges are simpler in many ways," says Bry . ".
"No one wants these things to go through the forest as quickly as possible.
They just want them to be able to fly reliably, take people from point A to Point B, and handle takeoff and landing.
"But, dealing with the uncertainty that arises during takeoff and landing, not to mention the rare and random events that cause crashes during flight, can be very difficult.
Passenger flights are also subject to strict supervision.
Even if they have a reliable flight system, it is difficult for companies to transfer the technology to the public domain.
That's why SkyRyse, backed by $25 million in funding, including investments from Silicon Valley venture firm Venrock and Eclipse, is working with Tracy City.
Tracy emergency services will operate in accordance with the current federal rules and it will only need to take a step towards autonomy.
The helicopter includes sensors needed for autonomous navigation.
For example, a radar is similar to a laser sensor on a driverless car, providing a detailed view of the surrounding environment even in bad weather.
But at this point, these sensors work with pilots.
Patt calls it a "way" to build trust with regulators ".
At the same time, these sensors capture a large amount of data that describes the situation encountered by the helicopter from takeoff to landing.
And the pilot's reaction.
Using this data, engineers at SkyRyse are re-engineering
Create flight conditions in virtual reality and they are forming systems that can navigate these simulations.
Manufacturers of driverless cars rely on similar technologies.
"We can simulate wind blowing, engine failure, and even birds that are digested into tail oars," Groden said . ".
But it will take a few years to turn this work into an emergency service like Tracy.
It may take longer to transfer it to the flight taxi service.
Helicopters used by SkyRysethe four-
Robinson R44 seat-
According to existing standards, it is small in size, quiet and widely used (
About 6,000 have been built.
But they may not be suitable for densely populated areas if used in large quantities.
That's why companies like Aurora and the Silicon Valley startup eagle are building a new type of aircraft.
The biggest obstacle, however, may be to convince regulators and the public that autonomous flights are safe.
"There are a lot of startups doing this," said Igor Cherepinsky, director of autonomous projects at Sikorsky . ".
"Quite a few of them are naive about what is going to happen.