Safe landing

Automatic control can now fly planes in circumstances beyond the ability of human pilots, prompting the vision of personal air cars. Tom Shelley reports



An unmanned aircraft has had most of one wing blown off – and then automatically flown and safely landed.
The demonstration has clearly shown that automatic air vehicle control can now do more than most human pilots ever could.
Costs and weights of automated avionic systems are dropping, so that such systems could be reliably installed in low-cost light aircraft. Coupled with advances in air traffic control, which have already been developed to allow the integrated handling of civilian and military aircraft and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle) in Iraq, it is becoming possible not only to provide a pilot with a panic and automatically land button, but possibly to do away with the need for skilled pilots altogether. And that opens up the possibility of passenger air vehicles that would require minimal skills to operate them and which could be a much more energy-efficient way of getting around than cars.
Dr David Vos, former CEO of Athena Technologies and now senior director control technologies of Rockwell Collins (which acquired Athena early this year), spoke of his vision of “no pilot in the cockpit” at the recent Farnborough International event. In fact, the company’s flight controllers have been extensively developed for flight control and navigation of a series of in-service military UAVs.
While they have been developed for UAVs, Vos claimed that its ‘GuS’ unit – weighing in at 113g and about the size of a mobile phone – “could automatically fly a 747”. The unit contains solid-state accelerometers, rate gyros, a triaxial magnetometer and air data pressure sensors. According to Vos, MTBF (mean time between failures) is 83,000 hours, but this could be greatly extended by employing three units run in parallel, using voting to detect where might have malfunctioned, while using the other two to fly the aeroplane. Cost of each unit is about $4,000, although the company also has $80,000 products.
The capabilities of the latest automated flight controls are impressive. Talking to a pair of British Airways pilots one night revealed that, if they had to make a landing under difficult conditions, they preferred to let the automatic landing system do the job, because it is more reliable.
In a Darpa project test, a Rockwell Collins controller was fitted to an unmanned F/A-18 – a model F18 fighter – at the Aberdeen proving ground in Maryland and explosives were used to blow off almost 60% of the right wing during flight. The controller then used what is called ‘Automatic Supervisory Adaptive Control’ to continue to fly the plane and land it without incurring further damage.
“We are going to extend further our damage tolerance capability,” says Vos, adding: “We are doing some optionally piloted system work.”
What he has in mind to develop is what he described as a “Panic button autoland” function, stating: “This is not dreamland, this is real.”.
While the world may not yet be ready for automatically controlled, pilotless airliners, he sees such developments to be only a matter of time, saying: “Nobody now worries about driverless trains.”
The virtue of driverless trains is, of course, that they are guided by rails. So before we can have planes flown by computers, there is a need to improve air traffic control – especially if there are to be a large number of automated light aircraft transporting people, many of whom might not be expected to be skilled pilots, if pilot trained at all. The attraction of having such machines is that light aircraft can be built that are significantly more fuel-efficient than cars, arriving at their destinations more quickly.
The two-seat, French-developed LH-10 Ellipse, for example, can fly at 175 knots (201mph), while achieving slightly more than 50 miles per gallon, which increases to 60 mpg, if the pilot chooses to fly at a more fuel-efficient 80 knots, when maximum range becomes 864 miles. The Ellipse is made entirely of vacuum-infused carbon fibre and one of the versions makers LH Aviation is already talking about is a UAV.

The answer to handling large numbers of manned and unmanned aircraft, according to Vos, is to have automated, computer-controlled air traffic control systems. With the skies becoming more crowded, near misses seem to occur increasingly frequently and collisions do sometimes happen. Large computer systems associated with air traffic control have not been totally reliable in the past, so fully automated systems are not likely to be introduced in the short term. Nonetheless, Rockwell Collins is engaged in developing such systems.
“We have plans to do some demonstrations of automated air traffic management, flying planes towards each other,” reveals Vos – presumably without carrying passengers at the present time.

Pointers
* Automatic avionic systems can now fly aerial vehicles in circumstances that human pilots would find difficult or impossible
* In a test, despite blowing off 60% of one wing, a controller was able at once to adapt to the new aircraft behaviour, and fly and then land the aeroplane completely automatically
* Automated air traffic management systems are being developed to cope with large numbers of aircraft of different types, including UAVs


Solutions for flying UAVs
Athena/Rockwell Collins control systems are now flying in a number of unmanned aerial vehicles.
These include using the 1 kg Athena 411 to provide guidance and navigation, including dual redundant INS (Inertial Navigation System) and quad redundant air data for the Thales/Elbit Systems ‘Watchkeeper’ Tactical Unmanned Air Vehicle system. This £800 million programme is to provide the UK armed forces with intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capabilities.
The US Army’s AAI Corporation Shadow is controlled by an Athena 211e and has so far flown more than 350,000 hours in Iraq. The General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Sky Warrior for the US Army and Air Force uses an Athena 511 INS/GPS and air data suite, with dual back-up navigation systems. The Alenia Aeronautica Sky X has an Athena 311 to provide the entire flight control and mission management system.
And the Aurora Flight Sciences GoldenEye80, developed under a DARPA programme, uses an Athena 111m to provide flight control and navigation, including autonomous obstacle avoidance through dynamic re-routing.

Author
Tom Shelley

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