In a first, FAA approves voice-recognition system

 - August 28, 2009, 6:36 AM

Speech-recognition technology has come a long way in the last few years, especially as cellphone makers seek to add voice search capability to their latest Web-enabled smartphones. So maybe it’s not too surprising that the FAA has signed off on a pilot-speech-recognition system that can enter GPS waypoints or victor airways en route simply by hearing them.

Created by startup firm VoiceFlight Systems of Troy, N.Y., the product, called the VFS101, was STC’d in a Cessna 182 in late July. It is approved for use with the Garmin GNS430 and GNS530 GPS receivers. Pilots talk to the GPS through the VFS101 by pressing a button on the yolk. The system then reads back the entire instruction. To accept it, the pilot clicks the yolk button twice and the waypoint is entered.

“For safety’s sake, the system doesn’t activate any commands based on what the pilot says,” explained a VoiceFlight spokes-man. “The pilot must always click to accept a flight-plan change.”

That’s all well and good, but does the system really work? VoiceFlight said the FAA put the system through extensive flight testing during the STC process and approved it based on a success rate of better than 99 percent when pilots try to enter a single waypoint and 93 percent for an entire flight plan.

NASA Funded

Created using money from a NASA research grant, the system doesn’t understand every word in the English language, but rather just a small set of commonly used commands plus numbers and the ICAO phonetic alphabet. So if a pilot were to tell the system, “Direct, bravo oscar sierra” (the command for a direct routing to the Boston VOR), the VFS101 would understand all the words correctly and in the right order about 99 times out of 100.

The system uses patented technology developed by company founder Scott Merritt, an instrument-rated pilot, with the goal of easing pilot workload by eliminating the twisting of GPS receiver knobs in light airplanes. On those rare occasions when the VFS101’s software becomes befuddled, however, pilots can revert to manual entry of waypoints.

VoiceFlight next plans to seek an approved model list STC that would allow installations of its system hardware, consisting of a small module mounted behind the instrument panel, in around 600 light general aviation aircraft, as well as parts manufacturing approval enabling it to start production. Retail price for the product is anticipated to be about $3,000.

Avionics makers have long said they want to bring some type of voice-recognition control to business jets, but because the technology was limited by the system’s need to “learn” before being able to understand a specific speaker’s voice, the idea never went very far.

But recent advances in speech-recognition technology have removed these barriers, leading to the approval of VoiceFlight Systems’ concept, a first in civil aviation. The military makes extensive use of voice-recognition technology in the latest fighters, with pilots even given the ability to tell the airplane what type of weapon they want to use for a desired target.

Now that the FAA has given its blessing to voice-recognition controls in the cockpit, it is likely only a matter of time before the technology migrates to larger Part 25 airplanes.