Can Automation Replace the Copilot?
James Anderton posted on May 21, 2020 |
Emergency autoland systems may make the one-pilot cockpit safe, and cheaper for airlines.
Piper M600 first of many aircraft to offer FAA-certified Garmin autonomous flight technology. (Image courtesy of Garmin.)

The Piper M600 offers FAA-certified Garmin autonomous flight technology. (Image courtesy of Garmin.)

Automation in aviation has been around a long time. The first automatic pilot was invented over a century ago by the Sperry Corporation, and practical devices were used often in transport aircraft 70 years ago.

Automatic landing debuted in 1965, when a BEA Hawker-Siddeley Trident landed at Heathrow Airport in London, England. The systems have been around a long time, but for the most critical part of aviation—landing—they relied on extensive ground support through instrument landing systems. The cost, complexity and training requirements have meant that automatic landing has been a big jet, big airline proposition.

However, a new system designed by Garmin International has been Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved—and it may fundamentally change commercial aviation.

Designed for very light jets and advanced general aviation aircraft like the Piper M 600, the GarminAutoland system is part of the company’s integrated flight deck instrument suite. Unlike commercial aviation autoland systems, however, the Garmin device is designed for emergency use. In the event of an emergency such as pilot incapacitation, a pilot or passenger can push a single button and the aircraft will find a suitable airport, navigate to it and perform an approach and landing automatically.

The system can also activate itself if it determines that an emergency has occurred, and then generates a flight plan and navigates around terrain or adverse weather.

Garmin G3000 Autoland. (Image courtesy of Business Wire.)
Garmin G3000 Autoland. (Image courtesy of Business Wire.)

Key to this system when considering various airports and runways is the availability of a GPS approach with lateral and vertical guidance to the runway. The system will automatically communicate with air traffic control (ATC), advising controllers and nearby pilots of its location and its intentions. When activated, Autoland communicates with passengers using visual and verbal systems in plain language. Passengers can also communicate with air traffic control if desired. All standard aircraft operating procedures are handled automatically, including approach, hold, gear and flap deployment, as well as braking to a stop on the runway and engine shutdown.  

“What started as a vision to develop the world’s first Autoland system for general aviation, became a reality today as we deliver one of the industry’s most significant innovations,” said Phil Straub, Garmin executive vice president and managing director of aviation. “Congratulations to the entire Garmin team, who contributed to the development and certification of Autoland – one of the industry’s most forward-thinking technologies that will forever enhance aviation safety and save lives.”

Garmin’s Autoland system requires no action by pilot or passengers once activated. (Image courtesy of Garmin.)
Garmin’s Autoland system requires no action by pilot or passengers once activated. (Image courtesy of Garmin.)

As the first pushbutton system that completely takes over for an incapacitated pilot and light aircraft, Garmin’s system is revolutionary. What the company isn’t saying, however, is that this technology has the potential to fundamentally change the way aircraft are designed, manufactured and operated in commercial service.

Why two pilots?

In commercial aviation, whether it’s a major international airline or an air taxi service, flight crew are a significant operating cost. Large airliners in the immediate postwar period frequently operated with four people in the cockpit: pilot, copilot, flight engineer and navigator. Large jet transports of the 1960s were designed with three crew cockpits, as navigation became more technology driven.

From the 1980s to today, the two-crew cockpit has become the industry standard, with automated systems now monitoring engine performance and similarly automated navigation systems (using GPS or inertial platforms) guiding the flight path, mostly on autopilot.

This trend is been welcomed by airlines as a significant cost reduction in the salaries of flight crew, reduced weight and system complexity, lower training costs and higher dispatch reliability. As flight ranges increased dramatically with new generation jets, cost savings were magnified, as onboard relief crews for long transoceanic flights were fewer as well, freeing up more revenue producing seats.

With two pilots up front, the logical next step is to eliminate the co-pilot and use automation to handle emergency situations like pilot illness or injury.

Can commercial operators simply leave the right seat empty? Regulators and airframe manufacturers set the standards for the minimum crew size. In the U.S., aircraft that are FAA categorized as “air transport” equipment, such as commercial jets, require two or more aircrew. Two or more crew are also required if the takeoff weight of the airplane exceeds 12,500 pounds and, significantly, if the airframe manufacturer requires two crew to safely operate the aircraft systems. This means that even relatively small turboprop or piston twins used for commercial operations require a copilot.

One result of the regulations is that seat-mile costs for smaller aircraft are proportionately higher than for large commercial jets, as the operating costs of the airplane are spread over hundreds of passengers in the big jets. These regulations effectively penalize smaller aircraft operators requiring the same flight crew staffing as large airliners. The effects are industrywide for commercial aviation, and are one reason for the evolution of the current “hub-and-spoke” system of regional carriers serving small centres, feeding passengers into major connecting hubs for city to city flights, then back on to smaller aircraft for service to their destinations.

Today, technology is changing the economics and as a result, the way the industry operates. New generation jets like the Airbus A220 make direct flights across long ranges possible between secondary cities. This means more “hubs” and shorter “spokes,” but the current system of regularly scheduled flights and the rigidity that results remains the same.

A new generation of very light jet aircraft, with new small fuel-efficient engines to power them, has the potential to change the industry. One example is Hondajet, a small twin jet built by the Japanese auto giant in Greensboro, NC.

Hondajet in flight. (Image courtesy of Honda Aircraft Company.)
Hondajet in flight. (Image courtesy of Honda Aircraft Company.)

Currently used as a business jet and for luxury charter operations, the Hondajet can be flown by one or two pilots depending on certification, and would typically carry five or six passengers. The aircraft is pressurized and operates at comparable speeds and altitudes to commercial jets, with ranges that can exceed 1,500 miles, which is also similar to larger commercial aircraft. Fuel burn is critical in commercial operations, and the Hondajet burns a modest 600 to 1,000 pounds per hour, depending on cruise speed and altitude.

In comparison, the current efficiency leader in smaller commercial airliners is the Airbus A220, with early adopters reporting fuel burn rates of approximately 3,500 pounds per hour. Measured per seat mile, however, light jets can’t approach the fuel efficiency of airliners like the A220.

A220s in final assembly in the Airbus Mobile, AL factory. (Image courtesy of Airbus.)
A220s in final assembly in the Airbus Mobile, AL factory. (Image courtesy of Airbus.)

But fuel is only one aspect of the cost of flight operations. The list price of any A220 is approximately $90 million, while the Hondajet carries a list price of under $6 million. Could a small fleet of very light jets, such as the Honda jet, selling seats at business-class prices be profitable compared to the current hub-and-spoke system?

Possibly, if the seat mile fuel burn disadvantage compared to larger jets can be compensated for with lower acquisition costs, lower maintenance, training and landing fees and a single pilot cockpit.

Garmin’s emergency landing system could be the technology needed to convince the U.S. FAA to relax the two-pilot rule for smaller jets. A single pilot, 15 to 20 seat light jet could not only be price competitive for travellers but could also further decentralize the current air transport system and change charter flying into on-demand air taxi services, bypassing the current system entirely.

The current state-of-the-art in large commercial aircraft allows autopilot systems to handle almost every piloting task from wheels up to touch down—although at considerable cost and system complexity both in the aircraft and on the ground. The ultimate system would replace human pilots entirely or reduce the amount of flight training necessary for a human observer tending the automation in the cockpit.

It is technically feasible, and if regulatory authorities and airframe manufacturers relax single pilot rules, airframers could see a dramatic increase in demand for smaller, lighter, cheaper jets with very high production rates.

Building thousands of units is a fundamentally different manufacturing problem compared to assembling dozens or hundreds of units, and in airframes this will require new manufacturing techniques and new materials, particularly composites. Certification of new aviation manufacturing processes and materials is traditionally a lengthy and expensive process. Airframe manufacturers will need to see market demand for high-volume production in order to justify the considerable investment in time and money needed, but the new Very Light Jet category is giving airframe manufacturers considerable experience in the production of small, lightweight pressurized structures.

The airframe and engine manufacturers are ready. Garmin’s new system suggests that the avionics community is ready, too. The next step is regulatory changes that remove the obstacles to decentralized, low cost air taxi services.

But will the travelling public accept one person in the cockpit? The transition from four professionals in the cockpit to three, and then to two, was largely unnoticed by travellers. With the current media popularity of self driving auto systems, drones and AI, it seems reasonable that the travelling public will accept technology as a substitute for a human in the right seat.


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