Thanks to Instrument Landing System (ILS) technology, pilots can utilize the airplane’s autopilot system to perform accurate approaches (and even auto land) if necessary. In this case, the autopilot relies on radio signals (and sometimes lighting arrays) to guide the plane to the runway.
However ILS technology is still limited to larger airports because of the number of factors which can negatively influence signal quality. As there is also heightened monitoring required by the pilots during a full autoland procedure, the option is “generally” left for situations where crew members cannot visually identify the runway (e.g. heavy fog).
In the strictest sense of things, airplanes currently cannot autonomously land themselves as they still require information from the ground transmitters, and would not be able to perform such a maneuver at airports without ILS equipment.
Researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have developed a new system called “C2Land” to combat this problem by using information gathered from optical sensors on the aircraft itself, to read both visible and infrared wavelengths. The data is then processed via a custom computer control system, and can recognize the characteristics of a runway. Once the target is acquired, C2Land can then guide the aircraft all the way down to the runway for a safe landing using fly-by-wire technology, as demonstrated in the video below. The system should essentially allow pilots to have their hands in their laps for the entire procedure.
When C2Land was trialed back in May, test pilot Thomas Wimmer said, “the cameras already recognize the runway at a great distance from the airport. The system then guides the aircraft through the landing approach on a completely automatic basis and lands it precisely on the runway’s centerline.”
The technology is still in its infant stages of development, but can be a huge benefit for pilots flying smaller aircraft into airports not equipped with ILS where visual conditions may not be ideal. This also theoretically means that aircraft may not be constrained to straight in approaches as the sensors would be able to detect the runway from different angles (depending on how viewing range the cameras have).