Major avionics companies are seeing cockpit automation play an increasing role in reducing pilot workload in commercial and general aviation aircraft. Pilot workload reduction should and will remain a focus of cockpit automation in the short term, they say.
“Simplifying pilot workload during the most critical and complex phases of flight must remain at the center of cockpit technology automation,” said Troy Brunk, president of the avionics business. from Collins Aerospace. “The elimination of constant, redundant and corrective tasks allows the human pilot to focus on where he excels, adapting to the unexpected variable.
“Humans excel in their ability to innovate and adapt to scenarios that don’t correspond to a pre-programmed situation,” Brunk added. “If automation can remove ‘busy work,’ the human will be in a better position to deal with unexpected scenarios.”
According to Alex Bennett, director of aviation and defense OEM sales for Garmin International, automating various functions of the traditional “aviate, navigate, communicate” activities that every pilot must perform when flying an aircraft improves flight safety.
Providing automated features such as autopilot, autothrottle control, electronic stability protection and intelligent rudder bias enhances safety. Automation ensures that the aircraft remains under control and within its performance range, simplifying the pilot’s task of flying the aircraft and monitoring its systems.
The assist process — often referred to as “simplified vehicle operation” — allows the pilot to focus on the plane’s position and the in-flight situation, Bennett said. So, by helping manage pilot workload and improving pilot situational awareness, automated systems operating as a “digital co-pilot” make sense.
Over the past decade, Garmin has pioneered a series of automated envelope protection and control avionics tools for general aviation aircraft, culminating in its Emergency Descent Mode features, Smart Glide and Autoland. They activate in response to various situational triggers detected by avionics – as well as manual input from the pilot – and ensure that an aircraft experiencing a loss of pressurization can descend safely. Likewise, they let an aircraft in distress make a safe landing with or without engine, even if all on board have become incapacitated.
Garmin markets the automated avionics capabilities under the name of its “Autonomí” suite. It also offers human-error-free FAA Datacomm text-based controller-pilot datalink communications in its G5000 integrated cockpit, allowing pilots to enter each ATC text instruction (after reading and verifying it) into the flight management system at the push of a button.
“When automation can consistently deliver value to a large enough market segment without introducing increased risk, it tends to find its way into usage,” Brunk said. “You will see the progressive implementation of automation technologies: one or more functions at a time, each with its own operational benefits and business case. There are significant opportunities and needs in all segments of aviation.
Fully autonomous piloting of passenger aircraft in crewed airspace remains many years away — “beyond 2030,” according to Bennett. Regulators will not readily approve fully autonomous operation of an aircraft carrying passengers without a pilot on board in high traffic airspace and over densely populated areas, particularly in the absence of a long history of semi-autonomously piloted operations in complete safety. In addition, the industry will need to consider the general population’s social acceptance of fully autonomously piloted passenger flights.
According to Bennett, fully autonomously piloted operations of cargo-only aircraft operating only in remote land or over-water areas could happen first, before 2030. But before regulators do permit, aviation will need to build a comprehensive record of several years of safe single-pilot aircraft operation in which automated control and monitoring functions serve as digital co-pilots.
Matthew George, CEO of self-driving start-up Merlin Labs, said regulatory conservatism prompted his company to develop its entire business approach by first obtaining certification for digital single-pilot operation assisted by a co-pilot of commercial cargo flights by small cargo planes. “We use a crawl, walk, run approach to get there,” to eventual certification for fully autonomous flight, he explained.
So far, the strategy has proven successful. Without fanfare, the New Zealand CAA and FAA approved Merlin Labs’ certification basis for its planned Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) for digital co-pilot assisted single-pilot freighters in September 2021. It’s not a coincidence that Merlin Labs has an active New Zealand subsidiary, and New Zealand has large sparsely populated regions and essential cargo air routes to small communities that are difficult to service viably with two-pilot aircraft.
The company has flown five different aircraft types from its test base in Mojave, Calif., on a semi-autonomously and fully autonomously piloted basis, but with a pilot on board to monitor systems and take control if events occur. unforeseen events occur. Airplanes he has flown independently include the Cessna Caravan and the Beechcraft King Air 90, both popular as small freighters. Merlin expects to get its first STC for an aircraft converted to autonomous flight in time for it to enter commercial service by the end of 2023.
Alongside its technology development work, Merlin Labs holds letters of intent with two major U.S. Part 135 operators. One, special missions operator Dynamic Aviation, operates a fleet that includes 55 Beechcraft King Air 90s, the largest largest such fleet in the world. Its letter of intent with Merlin Labs provides for the conversion of 55 King Air 90s for autonomous operations when Merlin obtains the necessary additional type certification.
Merlin has signed its other letter of intent agreement with freight carrier Ameriflight, which operates more than 130 Embraer Brasilias, Beechcraft 1900Cs, Beechcraft 99s and Fairchild Metroliners. The LOI directs Merlin to convert Ameriflight’s entire fleet to semi- and fully autonomous operation once it obtains the required STCs.
“You need to engage with the regulator early and have productive conversations from day one [to win certification for semi- or fully autonomously piloted flight], said George. “If you don’t, you won’t get the results you need.
“A lot of start-ups assume the regulator will see their point of view, but that’s not how the regulator is set up, or how the certification system works,” he said. “You need people with certification experience to do that. It is a 100% two-way process between the regulator and the start-up.