NASA Langley has brought its LC-40 urban air mobility testbed flight research aircraft to AirVenture. The heavily instrumented 2001 Columbia 300 is fitted with two autopilots, a standard FAA-certified S-TEC model and a modified research autopilot from MGL Avionics. NASA acquired the aircraft in 2006.
The MGL autopilot has been modified to allow for more automation and artificial intelligence controls. It offers AHRS, magnetometer, pitch, and roll capabilities and RDAC (remote data acquisition computer) engine monitoring system for a relatively low cost. The aircraft has also been fitted with a network of three computers with special software to research automated air traffic see and avoid, ground collision, and obstacle avoidance. The artificial intelligence technologies onboard were developed at the NASA Langley, Armstrong, and Ames research centers.
Right now the aircraft is in the initial steps to gather algorithms for use on the MGL autopilot and using ADS-B for air traffic avoidance, ground collision, and terrain. An automatic voice recognition and response system will also be tested. The aircraft has flown autonomously and in-flight test scenarios avoided other NASA research aircraft while under autonomous control. Software development for the aircraft is ongoing.
Flight data is captured via RS 232 dataports and onboard hard drives. Data is sent via the RS 232 to the MGL experimental autopilot. The MGL was installed with servos that mirror those on the existing S-TEC, which is described as “literally a servo on top of a servo.” Another control rod is used to deliver the inputs. The researcher sits in the backseat and manually delivers the inputs or a pre-determined software load can also impose them. Or the aircraft can be put on a flight path and “let it rock.”
NASA Langley’s Mike Wusk said the aircraft has been operating as the UAM LC-40 for almost 100 flight hours, but the agency also uses a comparably equipped Cirrus SR-22 that has done similar work but has yet to be fitted with an MGL autopilot. The LC-40 flies anywhere NASA wants within the National Airspace System with a research test pilot on board and can operate autonomously. “If we are looking at test scenarios for the various algorithms we’ll use another NASA airplane to set those scenarios up.” Wusk said NASA hasn’t yet flown the aircraft into high-density airspace like that around Chicago or New York. “We’re not to that point yet, but eventually that will be part of the process.”
Wusk said the program is new “but has a good future ahead of it. We got some seed money to start up last year and there is more money in the pipeline next year. This is going to go on for a while. A lot of the work last year was to get the airplane up to speed, and now the work going forward is programming. We’ve created the capability for them and now it is up to researchers to bring us the software packages and the algorithms to test and we go out and implement.”
Wusk said the modified MGL autopilot allows the aircraft to be tested beyond the limits of other autopilots when it comes to bank angles and pitch rates. “You’re trying to develop the technology that allows the airplane to react like it had a human in it. If it sees a potential collision it can take fairly aggressive maneuvering to avoid that conflict.” Wusk said six people at Langley are supporting the aircraft “but the research community that we are supporting goes much deeper than that.” NASA will make data from the test flights available to the public via conferences and research papers. “The researchers drive what we do. We figure out a real-world solution to figure out the set-ups that they want and hit the targets that they want.”