Hangar Flying: 'Two-crew' single-pilot aircraft demonstration

 - October 17, 2006, 11:24 AM

About a year ago, ARG/US took the wraps off its plans for developing a “virtual copilot.” Dubbed SPX, the program is intended, in the words of ARG/US executive v-p and system architect Mark Fischer, to “put another brain in the cockpit” of single-pilot aircraft, initially very light jets (VLJs) but eventually for wider application.

The imminent entry into service of VLJs has raised some controversial issues regarding training and the availability and cost of insurance coverage for the owner-pilots who will be flying them. Some of these pilots will be moving up from piston singles and twins, and even if the FARs allow these new jet owners to take their freshly delivered steeds into the flight levels and mingle with the old pros in heavier metal, the insurance companies have adopted a cautious approach and are taking a keen interest in training and qualification standards.

ARG/US’s position is that the SPX virtual copilot can raise the bar on safety beyond the point to which even the most carefully designed conventional classroom, flight and simulator training alone can elevate it.

What the ARG/US system does is provide a link between the pilot on board the airplane and an SPX pilot seated on the ground in front of a screen duplicating in real time exactly what the airborne owner-pilot is seeing on his cockpit displays and (with synthetic image generation) even the view through the windshield. Beyond that duplication, the SPX pilot on the ground will also have at his fingertips all the information that the airborne pilot would otherwise have had to go hunting for, such as big-picture weather, local conditions and frequencies.

A flight in the Piper Comanche 400 of SPX investor Larry Smith recently demonstrated that the system works, and works well. Smith and I strapped into the 1965-vintage hot rod after admiring its flat-eight Lycoming IO-720 during the preflight at Doylestown Airport in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County.

The baggage-compartment floor of this decidedly steam-gauge airplane is equipped with two SkyConnect boxes for the Iridium satphone link (one for voice and one for data); a 429 output from the onboard Garmin provides GPS data for the SPX system, and an independent AHRS supplies the flight data needed to generate the necessary picture on the ground back at ARG/US’s offices in Doylestown. In a VLJ with a digital glass cockpit, the process of sending the information to the SPX pilot will be more direct.

With the eight cylinders warming, Smith established the Iridium link with Fischer and the two of them performed the pre-takeoff checklist (including a weight-and-balance analysis) just like a crew–except that the pilot-not-flying was seated in a building miles away, his voice traveling into Smith’s headset via satellite.

“The whole idea is to get VLJ pilots, who won’t be professionals for the most part, into a crew mentality,” said Smith.

Fischer identified what he sees as a failing in the current process by which pilots prepare to become qualified in a new class of airplane: “The mentality is to ‘train the heck’ out of the pilot, but we have had that approach for years and it doesn’t always work. With SPX, I’m careful not to tell the VLJ pilot exactly what to do. I’m there to tell him what I see–‘The weather’s really bad. Shall we consider Altoona?’–and to perform the backup duties of a monitoring pilot.”

As well as supplying a virtual pilot, SPX would reinforce training by providing the means for the owner-pilot and his SPX pilot to evaluate each flight in a full debrief later. “Demonstrated weaknesses can be identified and addressed, weaknesses that a visit to a conventional training classroom and a simulator session do not necessarily reveal,” noted Fischer.

Compared with larger jets, VLJs have sharply limited payloads, making the few pounds of SPX equipment an attractive alternative to a live copilot and his 200-pound bite out of that allowance. “SPX can take care of the head-down stuff,” said Fischer. “My job as the SPX pilot is to feed the VLJ pilot the information he would otherwise have to look up instead of flying the aircraft.”

This asset became apparent as we headed for Lehigh Valley International (ABE) and, with our flight data updated four times a second on Fischer’s display back in the office, Smith and Fischer went through the ritual familiar to any two-pilot crew preparing to fly an instrument approach. They briefed on frequencies, the inbound course, descent restrictions, minimum descent altitude, the missed approach procedure, flight-plan cancellation and so on.

The SPX pilot hears the same ATC exchanges that the pilot flying hears, but this is a two-edged asset. While it allows the SPX pilot to get a fuller picture of who’s doing what in the surrounding airspace, frequency congestion can limit the time available for the pilot and SPX pilot to communicate by voice. ARG/US is therefore looking at text messaging, with an “acknowledge receipt” feature so that the SPX pilot knows the pilot got the message.

As we flew down the localizer backcourse 24 approach, Fischer advised Smith to check gear down and, monitoring our flight data in real time minus a few nanoseconds, called off altitudes exactly as we nailed them. It was quite eerie, knowing that Fischer, sitting at his computer screen (30 miles away in this case but he could equally well have been 3,000 miles away), could see every tip of our wings and the slightest deviation from altitude, course or target airspeed the moment it happened. The safety implications of this are significant should the system become established, particularly since the SPX system can be set for auto-monitoring that will alert the SPX pilot if the airplane strays beyond predefined boundaries.

“We have had discussions with the major insurers,” said Smith, “to find out if we can give SPX customers an economic advantage with their premiums. It seems likely the owner-pilot will get a lower premium or higher limits for the same premium.”

ARG/US is not wedded to Iridium as the conduit for information exchange. “GlobalStar, with automatic handoff from satellite to satellite, might be better than Iridium,” predicted Fischer. “With Iridium, a satellite change requires a redial.”

ARG/US has yet to nail down the billing details for SPX beyond suggesting that options could include an annual fee for unlimited use or a by-the-trip price structure.
ARG/US expects that VLJ owner-pilots will use SPX primarily during takeoff, approach and landing. Seeking to answer the question of how many aircraft could be assigned to one SPX pilot for purposes of staffing levels, ARG/US has analyzed the IFR usage of aircraft for the past couple of years using ATC records that reveal, for example, when Piper Cheyennes as a breed take off and land most often. They found that Cheyennes, like most owner-flown aircraft, tend to take off between 9 and 10 a.m. and return in the afternoon. “Not every PC-12, for example, is taking off at the same time,” observed Fischer. “Also, we found that the average flight time for a Learjet 35 was 40-something minutes, with just one passenger aboard, which bodes well for VLJ frax operations.

“The goal here is not for ARG/US to hire a whole roster of SPX pilots, but to license the system to operators (say, FedEx or Avantair, for example) who will staff their own SPX operations.” Initial indications are that between five and eight aircraft could be assigned to each SPX pilot for the purposes of planning a workable SPX pilot-to-airplane ratio.