An airplane that can fly itself (Autonomous Vehicle)

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Unknown_Target

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Check this out. Diamond is developing a system whereby a user can input a distress code and the aircraft will find where it is and fly itself to a nearby airport.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1Juf-RynUo

Ok, I already know the first comments, so I'll get them out of the way:

1) It's another point of failure.
2) It's a computer system which can be unreliable.
3) It's no replacement for good pilot training.
4) It might not work 100% in all situations.
5) It's probably too expensive for me to buy it/it's probably not available for purchase.
6) Poor pilot training could make the problem worse (ex: deploying a ballistic parachute when too low/too fast).

My immediate counter:

Yes to all of the above, but it will improve safety in the situations where it was designed to work and the pilot (or passenger) is appropriately trained in its limitations.

More importantly, if we want general aviation to spread to more people then systems like this are necessary for peace of mind and for the eventual reality that exists even today, where pilots aren't completely up to date on their training.
 

Topaz

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Neat implementation, but seriously, does not the emergency "direct to nearest airport" button on most GPS nav systems serve most of the same function without all the complication of tying it into the actual flight controls? It tells him where to go, and he flies there. He lands.

The use cases they're talking about here are really big outliers - "rare" doesn't begin to touch it in terms of how often they actually occur.

You can do a whole whack of things to "improve safety". But "safety" is never an absolute state, and there is always a cost associated with everything that you put onto an airplane - sometimes in cash, sometimes in weight, sometimes in reduced performance, reduced payload, etc. That cost has to be balanced against the genuine level of need to expend that whatever-it-is. In this case, the "cost" is the direct monetary cost, weight, complication, and loss of performance and reliability by adding all the mechanical actuators beyond what may have already existed in an autopilot on the airplane. I can see throttle actuators, flap actuators, very probably rudder and/or aileron actuators, ties into the landing gear, transponder.... That's a lot of stuff!

Given that the current solution - the "direct to nearest airport" option on current GPS nav units - accomplishes 98% of the benefit with nothing more than a software addition to the airplane, IMHO we're already at "good enough."
 
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Aerowerx

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There already are such systems. Well, almost.

My brother is a senior pilot for NetJets. He used to fly the Citation X. All he had to do is drive it to/from the end of the runway, push a button, and the plane does the rest.

[Insert deep sigh here] This brings up something that has been bugging me for quite a while. People are forgetting how to do things themselves. They rely on prepackaged/preprogrammed "just zap it in the microwave whatevers". Too much dependence on technology leaves us vulnerable if we forget how to do "whatevers" without the technology.
 

Unknown_Target

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I think this could save lives in situations where there is unintended flight into IMC. Just mapping to a GPS beacon isn't enough in most of those situations.

Also Aerowerx I think this might be the first time this sort of system is implemented in a light GA aircraft? The Citation is a pretty significant step above a DA-42.
 

Aerowerx

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One point is, if you already have a fly by wire system, all that would be needed is a few dozen lines of code (well, maybe a bit more) in the embedded software.

I'm not familiar with what the DA-42 has.
 

Topaz

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I think this could save lives in situations where there is unintended flight into IMC. Just mapping to a GPS beacon isn't enough in most of those situations.
As the safety officer at the soaring club used to say to solo students, "Stay outta the clouds. Don't crash." Unintended flight into IMC is usually a matter of a) not paying attention, b) being overly optimistic, and c) continuing into bad conditions hoping they'll get better (really an extension of 'b', but whatever). All of those are pilot training issues, not technology issues. Putting a technological BandAid over them doesn't mitigate the basic problem. The remaining very few cases where the weather changes faster than the airplane is flying are so few and far between as to not justify the weight and complexity of adding this system to a small airplane. IMHO, of course. YMMV.

And if you should find yourself "accidentally" in IMC (because you weren't paying attention, were overly optimistic, or figure 'these clouds will clear out before I get there; probably'), that's what your hood training is for. You continue practicing that, right? Right?

One point is, if you already have a fly by wire system, all that would be needed is a few dozen lines of code (well, maybe a bit more) in the embedded software.

I'm not familiar with what the DA-42 has.
It doesn't have a fly-by-wire flight control system, I assure you. There isn't any light airplane that does.
 

Unknown_Target

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As the safety officer at the soaring club used to say to solo students, "Stay outta the clouds. Don't crash." Unintended flight into IMC is usually a matter of a) not paying attention, b) being overly optimistic, and c) continuing into bad conditions hoping they'll get better (really an extension of 'b', but whatever). All of those are pilot training issues, not technology issues. Putting a technological BandAid over them doesn't mitigate the basic problem. The remaining very few cases where the weather changes faster than the airplane is flying are so few and far between as to not justify the weight and complexity of adding this system to a small airplane. IMHO, of course. YMMV.

And if you should find yourself "accidentally" in IMC (because you weren't paying attention, were overly optimistic, or figure 'these clouds will clear out before I get there; probably'), that's what your hood training is for. You continue practicing that, right? Right?
What's your point here? We all train to stay out of clouds. VFR into IMC still remains the highest killer of pilots. Therefor we should not create a safety tool that would help pilots get out of that situation if they get into it despite their training?
 

Topaz

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What's your point here? We all train to stay out of clouds. VFR into IMC still remains the highest killer of pilots. Therefor we should not create a safety tool that would help pilots get out of that situation if they get into it despite their training?
I would say, instead, that your statistic, if true, represents a big red flag on our pilot training, rather than yet another opportunity for a "technological solution." Adding a technological solution doesn't solve the actual problem (VFR pilots flying into IMC); it takes initiative and problem-solving away from the human being in favor of the machine; and adds weight, cost, complexity, and additional failure modes to the airplane against a case that will almost never happen in the vast majority of examples of the aircraft. Which means that that added weight, cost, complexity, and failure modes are completely wasteful in all those aircraft. Probably to the tune of a few thousand dollars and dozens of pounds of lost payload. These are not infinite resources. Such a safety net has also been shown, repeatedly, (AF447, to name one of many, many instances) to result in pilots that are overdependent upon the equipment and who develop an atrophy of their own hand-flying skills, to the point where that loss of skills may become a safety issue in and of itself.

The alternative - better training pilots to pay better attention to the weather around them, be more realistic about the weather and their capabilities, and not try to "scud run" their way through bad weather - adds no weight, no complexity, comparatively little cost, no additional failure modes, and produces a smarter, more-capable human being and pilot in the process. How can you argue against that?
 
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Unknown_Target

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I just keep hearing the statistic, but here's something that semi-corroborates it:
https://www.aopa.org/training-and-safety/air-safety-institute/safety-spotlights/vfr-into-imc

While I agree that the best solutions are cultural, not technological, I disagree with your premise that we should not add this simply because we can improve pilot training. This remains a recurring problem, yet there are a lot of training resources out there dedicated to solving it. So obviously relying entirely on training isn't a fool-proof solution.

I think the issue I have with your pure-training approach is that it exists in a perfect world: where all pilots read all bulletins, are always sharp, never take a break from flying, and are perfectly able to judge situations and their abilities to handle those situations. Even regular flyers make mistakes, and lots of pilots are not regular flyers.

Your argument about failure modes and weight can be applied to any advancement in aviation safety. Maybe we should get rid of the Heading Indicator? Pilots can be trained to factor in the errors of the magnetic compass. It adds weight and it just adds another failure mode. Why not just remove it and train pilots on the use of the compass exclusively? It is more reliable and will generally never fail.

The reason is because it adds a level of safety and ease of use that is there for pilots to reduce their workload and ease their sense of mind. Yes they should all know how to use a magnetic compass should the HI fail, but you learn that in basic and you don't get much practice afterwards unless you specifically remember to. You might not even remember to do so, because after all - you don't know what you don't know.

How can you argue with combining better training with safer technology? It's a win-win. You train pilots on how to handle emergency situations and give them an out if they make a mistake - because many of them will make mistakes. No matter how thorough training is, the real world happens.

EDIT: Hey, what do you think about ADS-B? That adds another failure mode and promotes pilots relying on a screen to see traffic. Do you think we should get rid of it and completely replace it with training on how to scan the sky?

EDIT2: What about HUDs? Should we avoid those because it promotes poor instrument scanning, adds another failure mode, and adds weight? Maybe we should focus solely on instrument scanning training.
 

Topaz

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... While I agree that the best solutions are cultural, not technological, I disagree with your premise that we should not add this simply because we can improve pilot training. This remains a recurring problem, yet there are a lot of training resources out there dedicated to solving it. So obviously relying entirely on training isn't a fool-proof solution.
I would submit to you that there are no fool-proof solutions, even the technological ones. The point I'm making, apparently poorly, is that we have to weigh benefits and consequences against costs. And by "costs", I mean lost performance, payload, productivity, and yes, just plain money. As I said in my last post, these are finite resources, so anything that uses up some of them must be considered in that light.

It's not that the system you're discussing is "useless." It's not. It's actually pretty clever. But adding all those actuators, sensors, wiring, and so on is going to have a significant cost impact the airplane, and a definite performance and/or useful load impact as well. Something like a heading indicator has almost no impact on cost nor performance, so it is a no-brainer.

I think the issue I have with your pure-training approach is that it exists in a perfect world: where all pilots read all bulletins, are always sharp, never take a break from flying, and are perfectly able to judge situations and their abilities to handle those situations. Even regular flyers make mistakes, and lots of pilots are not regular flyers.
And the issues I have with technological solutions is that they add cost, weight, and other penalties to the aircraft, and are no less a "perfect world" scenario than pilot training. How are these systems going to be 40, 50, 60 years from now when, based on history, many of the aircraft so-equipped will otherwise still be airworthy and viable? Will components still be available at all? At what cost?

Pilots make mistakes. Machines fail. Better-trained and practiced pilots make fewer mistakes. You can't make the machine better without spending more money, and often more weight and performance penalty, on redundancy. Additional training for a pilot may well bleed over into other areas of his life, improving how he drives a car, or a bicycle, and so on. Adding redundancy to a machine makes that one function more reliable, one hopes.

The reason is because it adds a level of safety and ease of use that is there for pilots to reduce their workload and ease their sense of mind. Yes they should all know how to use a magnetic compass should the HI fail, but you learn that in basic and you don't get much practice afterwards unless you specifically remember to. You might not even remember to do so, because after all - you don't know what you don't know.
Sure, except that there is a steadily-growing body of evidence that says that, if a machine is going to give you the "save", you don't bother continuing to practice doing it by hand. So if the machine fails, gets confused, has parts discontinued, or otherwise doesn't quite function as intended, you're very much worse off than you were before the machine was introduced.

Better training and repetitive practice is far better for your peace of mind than "Oh look, a 'save me' button! I wonder how it works?" When I'm properly trained to do it myself, I know what to do and how to do it. That's very comforting. When I practice something to stay proficient, or even get better at it, I know I can handle that situation should it arise. A machine can't give that to me.

Where technology can really help is in reducing pilot workload, keeping him/her from becoming overwhelmed. Assisting the pilot and expanding his capabilities, not taking over from him. I don't agree with the latter at all. People are the end of the entire exercise - the reason the airplane exists. They're not the means to the end of getting the airplane from A to B. You don't replace people, you help make them better.

... No matter how thorough training is, the real world happens.
Yes. The real world happens. Machines break or are not properly maintained. Parts for them are discontinued or become so infrequently purchased that they become prohibitively expensive. Whereas my brain is always with me. It may not be perfect, but it doesn't weigh or cost anything extra, and nobody will stop producing parts for it. Ever.

EDIT: Hey, what do you think about ADS-B? ...
I liked the original concept, where all the airplanes talked just to each other, increasing the situational awareness of the pilots by extending their senses. I especially liked the concepts that paired it with what we would now call "augmented reality" glasses, overlaying highlights on conflicting traffic. Such a system would cost some money, but almost no weight, and could be plugged into (and removed from) any airplane with a source of electricity. I would say the cost-benefit of such a system would well be worth it, because it simply extends the senses of the pilot and makes him better at "see and avoid." It would not replace pilot skill with that of a machine. Even the more-real-world systems that just used a pointer on the edges of the screen to indicate the direction of the conflicting traffic relative to the instrument panel were interesting. Getting the pilot to look in the right direction at the right time is half the battle.

The actual implementation of ADS-B, whereby the FAA simply turned the system into a way to get rid of their radar installations, and tells the pilot where to fly rather than where the conflicting traffic is, is an extremely poor way to go, IMHO. YMMV, of course.

EDIT2: What about HUDs? Should we avoid those because it promotes poor instrument scanning, adds another failure mode, and adds weight? Maybe we should focus solely on instrument scanning training.
Depends on the airplane. Adding a HUD to a Lear or Citation is a very small increment in the cost of the aircraft, doesn't eat up any really significant useful load, and provides a genuine benefit. However, while still offering a genuine benefit, adding one to a Cub or an RV-x would be absurd unless the price and weight came down radically. These are largely VFR aircraft, reducing the benefit, and the existing glass cockpits - or even steam gauges - do an absolutely adequate job. I'll repeat - unless the weight and cost come down radically, adding a HUD to a small, light, sportplane would be just plain absurd.

If you're still missing the point of a cost-benefit judgement, and insisting on "safety" as an absolute, I don't know what more I can say. I've tried to be as clear as possible. The system as described on that Diamond aircraft is expensive, heavy, and parts will become unavailable in a relatively small number of years. I don't think the extremely rare benefit it could provide is worth any or all of those things. Obviously, you're free to buy one of those airplanes if you want, with that system installed. Me, I wouldn't do it. I'll just stay out of the clouds and try to keep my heart healthy, thank you.
 
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Unknown_Target

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What I'm saying is that new technology, once standardized, can get cheaper and more affordable. I'm also saying that if you ever want the idea of a "flying car" to be even remotely possible in reality then you have to make concessions to varying degrees of pilot skill and training - which requires machines to make up for skill deficiencies and ensure a minimum level of competency. So the cost/benefit of including this system on your average GA today might be exceedingly high (and you make a good point about balancing the cost of adding it to your average 152 vs. just learning to fly better), but in the future technology like this will enable more aircraft to be flown safely by a wider range of pilot skill.

My frustration was originally that you offered all of the points that I pre-emptively talked about in my first post, then when pressed you didn't really explain your reasoning. I'm glad you did and it is logical. My response above is essentially the same as in my original post, however:

Yes to all of the above, but it will improve safety in the situations where it was designed to work and the pilot (or passenger) is appropriately trained in its limitations.

More importantly, if we want general aviation to spread to more people then systems like this are necessary for peace of mind and for the eventual reality that exists even today, where pilots aren't completely up to date on their training.
.

So yea, this might be clunky and heavy and expensive now, but inventions like this push us closer towards a future where the economies of scale could counteract that. Plus if a GA aircraft is designed with this in mind, maybe it wouldn't be that expensive or heavy to implement on the factory floor - especially if the aircraft sells more to offset that cost, based on its safety features.
 

BJC

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... VFR into IMC still remains the highest killer of pilots. Therefor we should not create a safety tool that would help pilots get out of that situation if they get into it despite their training?
About 20 or 25 years ago, an experimental (non-TSO’ed), box that was going to solve that problem got a fair amount of press. IIRC, it was essentially a wing leveler that would keep the airplane right side up, and when a button was pushed, it performed a 180 degree turn.


BJC
 

narfi

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It doesn't have a fly-by-wire flight control system, I assure you. There isn't any light airplane that does.

Didnt Pops say his did for a while till he got bored with it?

I didn't see anyone mention health emergency. There is a chance that a pilot may be able to push a button before passing out or loosing either muscle or cognitive control.
 

Topaz

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Didnt Pops say his did for a while till he got bored with it?
Ayup.

I didn't see anyone mention health emergency. There is a chance that a pilot may be able to push a button before passing out or loosing either muscle or cognitive control.
The video mentions it. But while this is a judgement call, let me put it to you this way: Your odds of having a "health emergency", as PIC of an airplane in-flight, are significantly less than your odds of being hit by lightning. Is this system really worth the very real added expense, complexity, weight, useful load penalty, opportunity for additional failures, etc., just against that extremely remote eventuality?

Maybe it's worth it to you or someone else. It isn't worth it to me. I wouldn't buy an airplane with this system installed. Or, if there were an option to buy the airplane without it, I'd do that. Or I'd buy a competing design that doesn't have it. I don't see the risk-benefit ratio being anywhere near rational on this system.
 

Aerowerx

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....Putting a technological BandAid over them doesn't mitigate the basic problem.....
A tangential, but related, issue that demonstrates my point (the one with the deep sigh) about depending too much on technology.

A couple of years ago Better Half spent three days in ICU on life support. Won't go into all the details leading up to it, but....

A hospital aide had used one of those forehead thermometers to take her temperature. Said it was OK.

Common sense would tell you something was wrong. After we complained (her mother and I) the nurse came in and checked her temperature at the, uh, other end. They immediately whipped her down to ICU with aspiration pneumonia, which had developed AFTER she was in the hospital for the original problem.

Turns out those forehead thermometers do not work when the person is sweating heavily.

Good old fashioned medical common sense would have averted this.
 

lr27

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Complaining about the weight of sensors is pretty silly. I built a model for a guy who had developed a system enabling a UAV, among other things, to fly back to a starting point and land, which it did quite well. The whole thing must have weighed 3 or 4 lbs, and most of that was battery, motor, and airframe. Also, consider how small and light quad copters are now. They all depend on fancy electronics to keep them behaving.

I suspect that a fly by wire system for a GA airplane could be lighter than what's used now. No steel cables, just actuators and some wire. And don't a lot of airplanes have autopilots already?

----------
OTOH, there are already a bunch of aircraft that can fly themselves, though there may be some question of where it comes down. ;-)

For example:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7WW14dYLJI

Of course, it doesn't have to be that hi tech:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BuG63kSRmeA
 
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