MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — Google unexpectedly announced today the successful first flight of their now-revealed “Autonomous Commuter Express” (ACE) passenger aircraft, which took off from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and landed in Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), without a single pilot on board.
According to Google, the technology is based on Google’s ‘driverless cars’ or autonomous car technology and was secretly developed in a floating barge off San Francisco bay. The system, which is installed in a refurbished MD11 passenger aircraft, is fully automated, starting from announcing the boarding of passengers, demonstrating emergency procedures, navigation, to taking off and landing.
The system also communicates with the control towers on everything a regular human pilot is required to do. The $150-million system takes it coordinates from the same GPS satellites we normally would use in our cars, but the electronics built into the system are contained in EMP-proof housing to prevent failure in the event of solar flares. There are also redundant systems built-in, specially with the flight-critical electronics of the plane. For example, all seats of the plane will have two TV tuners built in, just in case one breaks down, to prevent unruly children, and adults for that matter, from running up and down the aisle with the lack of on-board entertainment to keep them occupied.
Shandir Khan, Chief Technologist for Google ACE, whose team has worked for 26 months perfecting the system, said that the system will even recognize airborne threats such as unidentified military aircraft and will take ‘evasive measures and maneuvers’ if needed. He said it is a very important feature for routes close to hostile areas. But when asked to elaborate, Khan declined to further comment on what these ‘evasive measures and maneuvers’ are, he simply said that he was not under liberty to talk about the system, and was hurriedly escorted away from the podium by several security personnel.
The State of California however has not approved the use of the plane commercially as it is, fearing of a crash, in case the system — which is still technically under beta test — fails or does not perform as expected. With this reason, each flight will always have a flight attendant trained to land the aircraft manually for the safety of all passengers.
The 55-minute maiden flight ran so smoothly that passengers did not even realize that the plane was flying by itself. Gloria Nakamudo, a musician from Saratoga, CA, was with her two small children. She said that the plane ride was ” the best take off and landing” she has ever experienced, and was very surprised to learn that no pilot was in the plane, and was all controlled by a computer. “Amazing!”, one of her sons exclaimed.