While flying remains one of the safest ways to travel, the fact remains that if anything goes wrong at 30,000 feet above the Earth, the consequences can be deadly. A number of safeguards have been created to ensure that passengers and pilots remain safe in the event of an accident, but a German firm called Diamond Aircraft is taking it one step further.
The company has created what it calls an "electronic parachute," a poetic term for an advanced kind of autopilot. In the pilot becomes incapacitated for any reason, the system takes over the aircraft’s controls, guides the plane to the nearest airport, and lands, all without human interaction.
Similar systems already exist to protect against pilot hypoxia. This occurs when an aircraft’s oxygen system fails and the pilot loses consciousness. Software detects any unusual flight behavior, such as a failure to begin a descent when approaching the destination, and will attempt to alert the pilot’s attention with an audio signal.
If the system receives no response, it will lower the plane to a more oxygen-rich altitude to allow the pilot to recover.
Diamond Aircraft’s system, however, is the first that can actually land on its own.
The company plans to offer the electronic parachute as an option on its aircraft sometime next year.
Loss of control by the pilot is the leading cause of airplane accidents in the United States, so the new system could certainly help reduce fatalities. But it would be of little assistance in the event of an engine failure or other mechanical issues.
For that, planes may have to continue to rely on the "aircraft parachute," a more literal chute that ejects from the plane’s fuselage and guides it gently to the ground. The parachute is available for small single- and twin-engine planes.
Of course, this method leaves passengers with little guarantee that they won’t end up in the middle of the ocean.
No system is perfect.