Garmin’s Autoland Program Taken for a Test Drive
Garmin released its Autonomi suite, namely including Autoland that is designed to help with a potentially dangerous situation in the sky and assist a pilot to a safer landing.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen an automated aircraft landing. Previously, we wrote about a completely automated Diamond DA42 modified with a computer system that was able to fully function without the pilot having to touch the controls at all. You can read all about that here.
What makes this new Garmin feature important is that it has the option to be retrofitted into an existing aircraft or built into the controls in manufacturing.
Research for this new technology began in 2011 with the first test flight in May 2014 and Garmin brought in the FAA in February 2016 when it finally performed its first successful runway landing. After that proof, Piper Aircraft committed to the program with a sizeable $3 million.
“Over three years ago, I said, ‘I’m all in, whatever you need,’” says Piper president and CEO Simon Caldecott. “It’s a big advantage [for] our class of aircraft. We see more and more people who want to buy a seat in an airplane—and to know there’s a safety benefit.”
Garmin and Piper partnered together and choose the perfect aircraft: M600. The bones of the aircraft were a great fit, with enough size to put all the required electrical equipment and an option for a radar altimeter.
While a pilot never thinks they will use Autoland, it’s akin to having airbags on a car. The safety feature to lower the risk of fatal accidents or serious injury when the unthinkable happens in the sky is essential for the future of aviation. Piper intends to make the program standard on all aircraft in the future.
So, what’s it like to experience this system?
First it can be triggered under two circumstances: a lack of response from the pilot, or by pressing the guarded button on the dashboard.
“The first scenario, think of it as your EDM scenario,” Jessica Koss, an experienced flight instructor with Garmin said. “The pilot is flying straight and level [with the] autopilot on, at one of those hypoxic altitudes, and they don’t interact with the flight deck. They’re going to get that message, ‘Are you alert?’ and they just have to push any button on the flight deck [to answer the system’s query], and if they don’t, then EDM will descend [the airplane] to a lower altitude.” After a period of time, if the pilot continues to not interact with the flight deck or do anything, then Autoland activates.
Another circumstance the system anticipates is recovery from a serious upset. For instance, a less experienced pilot starts banking hard or pitching up aggressively or lowering the nose in the clouds. The system will engage, and if it’s engaged for a good amount of time, it will take the aircraft into level mode. If the pilot doesn’t deactivate level mode for two minutes then Autoland is activated automatically.
The main idea is that would be the safest solution for any pilot or passenger who was upside down and disoriented.
So, Autoland is activated. What’s next?
First, the aircraft is returned to a straight and level position with envelope protections. Next is terrain protections. For example, if the airplane flew below the ridgeline of a canyon which would be an immediate hazard. The system recognizes this and climbs steadily until it’s clear.
Then the system moves to weather avoidance and choosing the airport. There’s tons of data involved in this calculation with the end goal to find the best route and airport to land at, including weather forecasting and accounting for fuel.
“We take apart the decision a pilot would make, and we narrow it down into these discrete buckets, [which include] attributes for a destination,” Tran says. “We can give each of these a score, and we can weight those, [in a configurable fashion] and for the [manufacturer’s] preference; it’s the preference for the airframe. If they tune it in a particular way, [the algorithm] can pick a longer runway and pick one that isn’t affected by crosswinds as much—but however they tune it, it’s going to be a safe selection.”
Finally, the aircraft starts landing with even more calculations and input from how pilots naturally land. It’s designed to be comfortable, but firm and stick to the ground, considering runway length.
In August 2019, Garmin offered performed over 800 test flights before it goes under further review in the flight-test process. Overall, it’ll be exciting to see the process of this system and its future applications for aviation.
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