Opinion: Autonomous Genav Flight Not Far Away

 - May 22, 2020, 9:01 AM

The recent news that Garmin’s Autoland system received FAA certification in the Piper M600/SLS signaled a step-change for general aviation (GA): near-autonomous flight capability. 

While Garmin’s Autonomi product family, which includes Autoland, is designed to “deliver intuitive operations to make flying easier and provide advanced capabilities designed to help make flying safer,” this research has implications beyond traditional GA operations. In fact, Garmin’s description goes on to say, “With Autonomi, we’re creating the systems that will take us into a new era of flight and further enhance efficiency and safety—from personal and business aviation to urban air taxis. And we’re just getting started.”

Autoland is already installed in two other airplanes—the Daher TBM 940 and branded as HomeSafe and the Cirrus Vision Jet as Safe Return, with both systems awaiting certification in these models—and Garmin has said that more applications are coming.

Autoland is a remarkable achievement—a system that with the push of a button takes control of the airplane, finds a nearby suitable airport, controls speed and altitude, lands the airplane, stops on the runway, and shuts off the engine, all while reassuring passengers with easy-to-understand instructions and information on panel displays. The idea here is to give passengers an option if the pilot becomes incapacitated, but there is potentially a lot more to Autoland.

There have been plenty of accidents where a pilot flying alone has passed out. And the airplane, usually on autopilot, drones on until it runs out of fuel. The most famous of these is the Payne Stewart Learjet accident, where the jet continued climbing, leveled off, then finally crashed into a field. In this case, we know there were pressurization and oxygen supply problems that doomed the occupants because the wreckage was found on land. In many other cases involving pressurization, the wreckage ended up in deep ocean, never to be fully recovered.

Autoland, if installed in these airplanes, could easily have prevented these accidents, because even if no one pushes the button, it will automatically engage if there is no pilot interaction after a set period of time. 

One might wonder about the Cirrus Vision Jet, which is equipped with a ballistic parachute system. Why does it need Autoland? The use cases are different. The parachute is for circumstances where the chances of survival using the parachute are better than if the pilot tries to salvage the situation. For those who pooh-pooh parachutes because they think they are so highly skilled that they can handle any emergency, well, that just isn’t true. The chances of survival increase dramatically by using the parachute after an engine failure, flight control problem, even (within certain parameters) loss of control. This has been proven over and over again, with hundreds of lives saved by ballistic parachutes and well over 100 Cirrus airplane saves as well. (Incidentally, a parachute save in a Cirrus doesn’t necessarily mean the airframe is totaled; some airframes have gone on to fly again.)

So for the Vision Jet, the parachute is still useful if, say, the engine fails after climbing above the minimum altitude threshold after takeoff. Autoland isn’t helpful here, because it isn’t designed to handle an engine failure, although the algorithms that govern its behavior will at least maintain a level attitude above stall speed in an engine-failure situation. 

Autoland, by contrast to a ballistic chute, will help passengers or the airplane itself survive if the pilot passes out or even if everyone on board falls unconscious. As single-pilot, high-performance airplanes like the Vision Jet and single-engine turboprops become more popular, systems like Autoland add an extra layer of safety and will help make passengers more comfortable about flying GA

But what’s next? Is Autoland the first step towards entirely autonomous GA flight? Do we even want that? 

I believe that Autoland, which is only for emergency use, shows us that fully autonomous flight for GA aircraft is not only possible, but it’s very nearly here. The popularity of the Cirrus line of single-engine piston airplanes and the Vision Jet shows that there is a market for a relatively easy to fly, good-looking, and comfortable airplane—and they are not inexpensive ones at that. Cirrus is responsible for bringing thousands of new pilots and aircraft owners into GA, many of whom learned to fly in the airplanes they purchased. 

How big a market would GA be if someone could buy an airplane and fly it without any experience at all? I’m going to guess it would be huge, and we might be about to find out.