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Robotic planes, tractors loom behind autonomous cars

MIT professor Mary "Missy" Cummings sees autonomous cargo planes and robotic tractors coming to market within three years.

A test of an autonomous tractor spraying an apple orchard without a driver.
Screen capture by Martin LaMonica/CNET

Someday soon, FedEx packages could be transported by autonomous planes and apple trees sprayed by driverless tractors, says aerospace and robotics expert Mary "Missy" Cummings.

Cummings, a professor of aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was interviewed today at Wired's Disruptive by Design conference in New York, where she offered her views on the state of the art in autonomous vehicles.

The work of Google and automakers has shown how cars can drive themselves in some situations. And many commercial flights are already fly-by-wire, allowing pilots to monitor the plane for when something wrong happens, rather than actively take off, fly, and land.

Now the technology is advancing to the point where more autonomy is available -- if people become comfortable with it.

More commercial flights, for example, could be operated autonomously, but there are cultural barriers (it's more common in Europe than in the United States) and safety concerns. Left to monitor a plane rather than fly it, pilots get bored and distracted, and pull out their laptops or phones, she said.

"It is a problem not because pilots are unprofessional; they're just human," Cummings said. "When you're working with a highly automated system, we're going to find things that take our attention away."

Commercial flights will never be completely automated, she predicted. "You always need someone to take care of unruly and drunk passengers," she said. But there could be a smaller crew, such as a flight attendant who is also the lead pilot.

Cargo flights are more likely to operate autonomously, she predicted. Farms, too, are prime locations for autonomous vehicles, she said.

Cummings has also done work with John Deere to design robotic tractors. Using sensors and GPs, the tractors create a virtual line in the fields, and can do spraying, tilling, or other jobs normally done by drivers.

"Farmers are very conservative. It's not a crowd that lends itself to robots, except they can't get enough people to work the fields," she said, adding that the routine tractor work gets boring. UAVs in the form of robotic helicopters will also be deployed for crop dusting, she said.

The technology for robotic tractors is nearly ready. The challenge is developing a business model for it to become commercial, she said. She predicted that robotic tractors will be operating in the United States in one to three years, sooner than planes, because there are fewer safety considerations.

She is also working with the U.S. Navy on research to design an autonomous helicopter that could rescue an injured soldier from a potentially hostile environment by responding to a call from a smartphone. Her prediction for this robotic medical military care: 7 to 10 years.