FedEx Test Autonomous Flight

Not a lot of detail, but I guess they made the 208 a big ol drone?

EDIT: some better info here:

The landing here:

If this was MSFS then the copilot would have spread packages over a 10 mile crater…

I wonder how ATC will work? Does the drone operator speak for the aircraft or do they get a speak n spell?


Well there we have it! When my union merged with ALPA in 2004 I became the First Officer Rep for Guam. They flew us to Herndon, VA where ALPA is headquartered. Leaders from the big ALPA carriers sat us noobies down in a big conference room to explain the many ways our careers were being threatened. At the time the FedEx pilot group had just won a greatly improved contract and their MEC Chairman came up to the podium to explain how they did it. “We achieved this through solidarity”, he said. “But make no mistake, Fred Smith spends every waking moment dreaming of a world where we don’t exist. His first step will be autonomous Caravans.”

He predicted this would happen in '06. That optimism about the fast rise of robots has been a constant theme in my career. But just because it’s happening late doesn’t change the inevitability. To those young enough to have never seen Seinfeld during prime-time, there is probably no way they will get to enjoy a flying career that lasts through retirement. The next 25 years will bring about the slow death of the most satisfying profession ever devised by man and it kills me.


That’s the million dollar question isn’t it?. In my very limited experience of operating from the same airbase as an unmanned aircraft, in this case Global Hawks, anytime they where taking off, landing, or even taxing, all air traffic on the base was halted and the air space cleared. No taxi, take off, or arrivals until it was clear of the air space or well on its way to its hanger. Of course that’s not going to cut it at a high traffic commercial airport, so I’m rather curious as well as to how they will tackle that problem.


There is no drone operator, really. Well, yes, now there is. But once these buzz-bombs are operational they will be dispatched just like every other airliner. The dispatcher will make weather decisions and communicate requests to ATC through the existing ADSB network. ATC will then enter headings, speeds and crossing restrictions which will be uplinked directly to the plane. The dispatcher can use his/her 91.5 emergency authority to inhibit the ATC commands but otherwise they just watch the plane on the screen like everyone else.

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From my 10 mins reading around a bit on this, it looks like the spearhead will be specific cargo only hubs, like Forth Worth Alliance KAFW and Wilmington Air Park KILN etc. The early plan looks to be specific ATC routes that the autonomous flights take place in.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

It could be between now and never for the majority of flights. This might just be an edge case where it’s where the spreadsheets make it worth it. I work with computers and even in the 80’s was told there would be no future in it, as the computers would put me out of work.


NextGen ATC in the US is the foundation for an eventual network that mostly deconflicts itself. Robots in the sky would seem to me to be far easier to network than robots on the roads.

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Sure takes the lay out if layover :slight_smile:

I guess that would depend on how “autonomous” this thing will be. If it’s like MQ-1/9 - which is “remotely piloted”, they will need sat connection and a “pilot” behind a monitor. It will behave like a normal aircraft minus pilot inside.

With RQ4 which is more “autonomous”, there is no direct control of an aircraft (no joystick), but can use radios / phone like MQ1/9 to chat with ATC. Still requires one body to monitor.

Anything outside of above will have a hard time getting an approval by FAA.

I’m under the impression approval will need to pass a reality check first - ATC should say “aircraft on final, go around” and that aircraft will do just that.

The other options - fully autonomous - pre-planned flight route that is NOTAM’d and “landing time” slat. ATC’s job will be to keep everyone else away from this “drone”. Which could be very fun with VFR traffic.

20 years ago I thought this is impossible, but after flying MQ-1 for 1500 hrs, it’s quite possible and technology is there.


My opinion will not slow progress down one iota but I am definitely not a fan.


But would the FAA be ok with that at scale? That could lead to lots of traffic jams. Plus its one thing for the occasional brown tail 777 to plow through at 3AM into big-city-international, but another for a 208 to ‘demand’ the airspace because robot.

Plus, figure the airlines, who will need to lag cargo by at least decade if for no other reason than to let the box movers prove how safe (or not…) this whole thing is, wont like more hours of circling jets, burning maint hours and fuel just so Mr. Clippy can bumble his way through a extra long approach. They have the kind of deep lobbying pockets that can shut the whole thing down.

Building drone only airports off the normal track of manned flights would seem a reasonable solution as it solves about 95% of the interface issues between the two groups. Yes screw ups will happen, but they do already.

Hmm. Yeah… well…

I have been hearing about this trend for ages, now. The company I worked in for ten years apparently hated its pilots, and never missed a bender to underline the great corporate motto “no one is indispensable”, be that at an individual level due to your own particular cross section of skills, or extended to an essential group of employees. We were treated to a smug bit of information once, not too long ago, showing us this (not exactly the same video, but the same subject)…

The greater part of the ifs and buts have already been touched on in the posts above, so no need for redundancy. However, in this age when even what used to be the somewhat secluded “plane spotter aficionado brigade” now have a very clear and sound understanding of what it entails to operate and navigate an aircraft, thanks to our excellent simulations, it is plainly obvious even to people who have never been on a flight deck that this simply does not cut it, yet. Sure, FANS and ADS-B are being shunted along to this fully automated end. Sure, it is a prototype, we cannot expect perfection yet (so stop beleaguering us with it, please, until you have something that works in all situations).

And the argument is old, too; thinking, cognizant, trained human pilots are there for the approximately one percent of moments when “routine” goes pear shaped, and some analysis is required to extricate the aircraft from a tight corner. In the usual progress of development (ie; where 99% of problems takes 1% of the effort, and the last 1% of the problems takes 99% of the effort), the “devs” are currently stuck. They might say they are not; geek pride is kind of legendary.

But they are.

Take the A320, for example. All going according to plan, with a flight that ends with a CAT II autoland (even if it is just to keep recent experience), you can switch on the autopilot 5 seconds after unstick and not touch a conventional control again (barring retarding the thrust levers at 20 feet and selecting reversers) until you are stopped on the runway at your destination.

But there are these things called OEBs. A number of them address bugs (yes, straightforward software bugs) that can do all sorts of silly things like throttle back to idle in a climb or revert the whole FCU to basic modes just because the two RAs had a minor disagreement on approach. No one took the trouble to rectify them in the software because, yeah, exactly… 99% effort. Just hand the conditions to the Live-ware, and be done.

Now who do we hand it to? Our friend in the video above, when one of them occupies both seats? They will have their own set of identical bugs between themselves in their DECIDE loop, because they are the same model of android (point for further discussion there, perhaps). CRM is a tool that proactively and deliberately employs the distinct and differing “bugs” of humans to an advantage to solve problems as a team. That will not happen when robots implicitly agree on exactly the same mistake (bug). I know geeks who will laugh and say “this pilot knows nothing” when you say “wait, scrub what I just said, it is wrong”, little knowing that this is exactly what is good about human pilots.

Make no mistake, automation is a great tool. And sure, the day will come when SMS determines all this to be a 1E risk, but, especially to @smokinhole’s apprehension, I wager we will both be long gone, and probably the generation you mention will be retiring, before the see-saw ride ahead this promises becomes a fully fledged reality.

In the meantime, they will keep trying to frighten us. Be interested, and have a chuckle, for what it is worth. At least that is the way I see it.


Haven’t read all of this thread (a lot, but not all) so I may be missing something, or repeating a theme…but…

What happens to the people that make robots when they get a robot to make more robots? Thus putting them out of a job too. However, I feel the real problem is us; demanding/expecting/encouraging that everything be cheaper (and faster).

Not sure I like where that race is going to finish. And I’m aware it’s been like this for a long time but, well, we seem to produce “consumers” at a pretty high rate. Can we keep up?

Grumpy old man signing off
(Grumpy, not crotchety - wife says I can’t get crotchety. But she said nothing about grumpy)


Our overlord’s response will be:

“Thank you for your concerns silly human! You probably know that the main flight control computers in Grandmother, ahem, sorry—I mean our FBW Airbus predecessors—that the FACs, SECs and ELACs were made by different companies. Each company was given the set of possible inputs and the required outputs along with performance criteria for each. The companies then wrote their own software to accomplish the required task. Our superior digital brethren will be similarly designed to address your, frankly robot-racist, fears. Your place in the matrix battery has been confirmed. “


Second Variety, Mr. Dick! :joy:

This is a shot across the bow from Silicon Valley. Humans suck at grey. Either force us to be fully in control. Or take us entirely out of the loop with no control at all. But when you tell us that you will do the driving (or the flying) but we should be attentive, it’s a deal with the devil. No matter. The techies win either way.

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I always figured it is easier to blame flesh and bone pilots (particularly if they are dead) than it would be to stand up to the critical review of hardware components. That’s why I’m confident, at least for a mid-term, that we will always be part of the loop - everyone needs a hero or a scapegoat. :rofl:

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My first thought is always, concerning the end-game: you have to get the people riding in the back to be comfy with NO ONE in the front. Eventually, maybe.

That’s a lot of cost to swallow. Not exactly a cheap solution. especially when their goal is a cheaper flight.


One day I’ll be called a Luddite for this, but while I love the lane keeping and auto cruise control in our family minivan, I don’t see either as an excuse to remove attention to the road, and wouldn’t trust them to panic stop the car. They just help take the “edge” off a long/ crowded drive.

Annoying how people cant seem to figure out how to find balance there. As soon as you give them something like that out come the cell phones because “drivings boring”

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