Big commercial aircraft are already routinely guided in for automatic landings at large airports, as their autopilot follows radio signals transmitted by ground-based antennas. Such auto-landings currently aren't possible at most small airports, although that could be about to change, thanks to a new German-designed system.

The technology is being developed as part of the German federal government's C2Land program, in a collaboration between the Technical University of Munich and Technische Universität Braunschweig.

It relies partially on GPS, which it uses to guide small private aircraft towards small-airport runways even in low-visibility conditions … generally, at least. The problem is, the supplied coordinates aren't exact or reliable enough to put the plane right on the runway, so the pilot would still have to take manual control before the aircraft touched down – if the system were using GPS alone, that is.

For that reason, the aircraft is also equipped with both a visible-light and an infrared camera. As the plane nears the airport, onboard image-processing software analyzes the cameras' video (pictured above), determining where the plane is relative to the runway. Combined with the GPS data, this information is used by the aircraft's autopilot to guide it safely into a landing.

The system was field-tested in late May, when it was successfully used to land a modified Diamond DA42 at a small airfield. That landing can be seen in the video below.

"The cameras already recognize the runway at a great distance from the airport," said test pilot Thomas Wimmer. "The system then guides the aircraft through the landing approach on a completely automatic basis and lands it precisely on the runway's centerline."

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