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Robo autopilot 'digital parachute' lands light plane hands-off

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Vid US aerospace firm Rockwell, prominent in the unmanned aircraft biz, is engaged in developing truly automatic pilots - ones able to conduct even landings without human input - for light manned aeroplanes. The developments offer another small step towards the long-desired flying car.

The company announced the developments at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conference held in America last week. Dr David Vos, unmanned-aircraft director at Rockwell, briefed reporters on a current project with Hawker Beechcraft Corporation (HBC) aimed at adapting advanced flight control tech originally developed for unmanned systems to general aviation aeroplanes.

"This project with HBC shows what is possible by leveraging our [roboplane] technology to potentially serve as a digital parachute in emergency situations," said Vos.

According to company reps, a modified Beechcraft Bonanza single-engined plane, fitted with Rockwell's "Athena" autopilot equipment, has carried out a series of completely hands-off landings (see the corporate vid above). Landing is the most difficult manoeuvre in a normal flight: the robo-pilot kit is also capable of being used for simpler point-to-point transit and takeoff manoeuvres.

At the moment, Rockwell and Hawker Beechcraft are looking primarily at adding safety to existing planes flown by fully-qualified private pilots. An automated Bonanza or similar light aircraft is now potentially able to land itself in the event of its pilot becoming incapacitated - a relatively common occurrence in general aviation, where medical standards are not so strictly enforced as they are among professional pilots. Similarly, the plane would be able to set itself down even if fog, rain or low cloud at the runway would prevent the fleshy pilot from doing so.

Of course, regulators would still at the moment require a qualified pilot aboard regardless. Nonetheless, it's now plain that a light aircraft can potentially operate safely without any input from humans on board other than, perhaps, selecting the destination. Meanwhile, efforts are underway to greatly improve the number of aircraft that air-traffic control can handle, again using automation and sat nav technology.

One of the greatest barriers to the appearance of the long-awaited flying car has been the time-consuming and expensive nature of even basic good-weather-only pilot qualifications - let alone ones which let you fly through clouds or congested airspace - and the likelihood of many more deadly human errors with large numbers pf relatively unskilled pilots flying.

As a result, the Personal Air Vehicle (PAV) concept has always called for the development of a hands-off, highly capable autopilot/air-traffic system able to conduct a flight without significant input from the PAV's user. These joint Rockwell/HBC tests would seem to have shown that such equipment is perfectly feasible.

A true flying car is still some distance off, awaiting the development of quiet, compact and affordable vertical-lift hover capability. But a "roadable aircraft" PAV, able to drive about on roads and also make airborne trips between ordinary airstrips, is expected to be on offer soon. If Rockwell's "single small unit" Athena kit were added to a Terrafugia Transition or something similar, you would have no practical (as opposed to regulatory) need for a pilot's licence, instrument rating etc.

Interesting times. ®

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