Hyper-realistic flight simulator X-Plane 10 is sharing parts of its brain with an in-flight navigation system that will help aircraft find a safe landing spot during an emergency. The technology is the brainchild of X-Plane creator and aeronautical engineer Austin Meyer, who has incorporated it into his own plane.
The same physics engine that supports X-Plane 10 forms the basis for the tech, which also uses the simulator for extensive testing. As you fly, a stripped-down version of the code is constantly assessing nearby airfields based on landing strip length, quality, and local weather. It then uses the simulator's flight model to plot a safe course down to the ground, painting 'croquet hoops' on the heads-up display to guide the plane down - turning a potentially terrifying situation into a game of Pilot Wings.
The next step - to incorporate this technology into a fully-fledged autopilot system - is already underway. “You can have an engine failure or a pilot failure,” explains Meyer, “hit this button and the airplane will use artificial intelligence to land itself. In X-Plane, I'm achieving about a 90% success ratio. In other words, if you fly at a reasonable altitude then 90% of the time this artificial intelligence will get you down on the runway in such condition that if you're good enough to get on the breaks, you'll stop the airplane - and if not, you'll roll of the end of the runway at fifty knots, which is probably a survivable outcome after an engine failure or a heart attack or a stroke or something like that.”
“Another area this could be used, is if you're flying the aeroplane and all of a sudden you wish you weren't. Maybe you're hungover, maybe you're having a panic attack - maybe you think you're having a heart attack but aren't sure. Maybe your passenger has suddenly decided to start vomiting all over the cockpit. Maybe you think you smell smoke but you're not sure. Any of these are cases where you'd rather not deal with having to fly the airplane at that moment. You can hit the red button, and know that the airplane will do the smartest thing it can think to do to get you down, to leave you free to debug your problem, whatever it is. Maybe you got batted in the face by a bird. I mean, a bird comes through the windshield, bats you in the face - all you can see is bits of cracked glass in your eyes and blood. Well, that doesn't mean you want to die, but you also don't want to be having to fly an airplane at that point.”
One thing's for sure: I'm never getting in a plane that doesn't have a big red button installed ever again.