Waypoints: Will electrons rule your next flight?

January 1, 2009

Editor in Chief Tom Haines owns a 1972 Beechcraft Bonanza with panel gear from four different decades.

One of the big issues with updating the electronics in our “legacy” airplanes (that’s PR-speak for “old”) with modern systems is the uncertainty of what you’ll find not just behind the panel but throughout the airplane when you start the installation. Avionics technicians cringe at the things they find in airplanes that have been updated multiple times over the decades. Alaska has its “bridge to nowhere” and most every older airplane has a wire bundle to nowhere.

What might be a simple avionics installation in a new airplane becomes an expensive job in wire tracing and compatibility issues when installing the same gear in an old airplane. And even in new airplanes, we still deal with cantankerous pitot/static lines that are hard to seal, the lack of a universal digital wiring system for airplanes, a variety of input/output standards, and in some cases spinning mechanical gyros prone to failure. Today’s “modern” glass cockpits still require a host of black boxes stowed throughout the airplane with wires running through every cubbyhole imaginable.

What if we could wipe all that clean and start over with the latest technology? What might replace that rat’s nest of wiring, plumbing, and individual black boxes? How about a four-ounce black box the size of a small cellphone? Four ounces. The weight of a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder—before cooking, of course.

It’s a ways off yet, but David Vos has a vision of the future for general aviation that includes small, high-performance flight control and engine management systems that reduce costs and improve reliability and safety. Vos is the founder of Athena Controls, which was acquired by Rockwell Collins last April.

While Vos is today the CEO of a small, but successful company in Warrenton, Virginia, that specializes in building flight control systems for the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) community, his first aviation project was hard-core general aviation. As part of the Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiments (AGATE) program in the mid-1990s, he developed a full-authority digital engine control (FADEC) system that he tested on the front engine of a Cessna 337 Skymaster. AGATE was a NASA-sponsored project to infuse new technology into GA.

Since the GA world wasn’t quite ready for his FADEC solution in the mid-1990s, Vos shelved the project and moved into the development of advanced flight control systems. The South African developed the first autonomous unicycle while studying control theory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his doctorate degree. The unicycle, which is on display at the company headquarters, can move about on its own thanks to a system of miniature gyro stabilizers perfected by Vos.

Vos’s work on solid-state gyro systems led him to the development of GuideStar, Athena’s family of fully integrated digital flight control systems. Hundreds of such systems have flown on UAVs of all types around the world, including across the Atlantic Ocean. Vos estimates that a UAV flown by an Athena system completes an autolanding every 20 to 30 minutes worldwide. Athena systems now have more than 300,000 flight hours in various UAVs and experimental manned aircraft.

“There’s no reason in 20 to 30 years that in every aircraft a pilot could decide to have the autopilot land the airplane on any particular flight,” Vos said during a recent interview. On the next flight, the pilot could choose to make the landing. While Vos believes such flights could routinely occur much sooner, he is aware that the notion of general aviation aircraft and pilots performing autoland flights to near zero-zero weather conditions is disconcerting to some. “We want people to feel comfortable with the technology,” he stressed. That comfort factor will require a change in culture that Vos believes must occur on its own and not driven by his or any other company.

Electrons at work

The GuideStar system is basically a micro inertial navigation suite that includes an integrated air data attitude/heading reference system updated by an externally linked WAAS GPS sensor. The INS uses MEM—microelectromechanical—sensors, including accelerometers, rate gyros, magnetometer, and air data pressure sensors to determine the aircraft’s position and attitude in space. Input/output connectors on the case allow that information to be ported to primary and multifunction displays to aid the pilot and to servos connected to flight controls to guide the aircraft.

To prove just how effective such a system can be, Vos showed a video of a scale-model fighter taking off autonomously. With its GuideStar system working, the aircraft flies just fine, maneuvering through a pre-programmed route. However, part way through the flight, about 60 percent of one wing is blown off, including the aileron. The aircraft wobbles for a second and then continues flying straight and level before returning to the small grass strip for a successful autolanding. The GuideStar system sensed the instability caused by the missing wing area and then employed the remaining flight control surfaces and thrust to keep the aircraft under control. It’s such technology that allowed Athena to fly the first fully unstable, tailless, delta-winged aircraft demonstrator.

Besides the ability to perform an autoland, such a system in a GA aircraft would prevent upsets from wake turbulence and allow pilots to safely extract themselves from any imaginable loss of situational awareness. “This is an autopilot that you turn on when you encounter turbulence,” said Vos, countering the usual advice to turn a conventional autopilot off when flying in turbulence. The inventor sees the “blue button” introduced by Cirrus on the Perspective panel early last year as the first step in changing GA culture to accept such technology. A touch of the blue button on the Perspective panel activates the Garmin autopilot to right the airplane from moderately unusual attitudes. The GuideStar system, especially when incorporating a digital engine control system, could right the airplane from any attitude. In addition, with a GuideStar system on board, the pilot could activate what Vos calls an “emergency parachute.” His vision of an emergency parachute is not a ballistic recovery chute as Cirrus and others use on their airframes. Instead, Vos’s vision is the pilot’s ability to push a button in the case of an upset, medical emergency, or loss of a flight control surface, and have the airplane fly to the nearest suitable airport and land.

Sophisticated autopilot and inertial navigation systems are routine in airliners and high-end business jets, but they are not yet common in FAR Part 23 GA airplanes. Vos believes technology now allows for significantly more performance at significantly lower cost in light airplanes—and at mean-time between failure rates in the tens of thousands of hours as compared to the hundreds of hours for conventional systems. “From light jets on down, the market is ripe for what we do—automation, flight controls, and engine controls,” Vos said.

A system could be purchased for about $10,000. Adding two or three systems for redundancy would still come in at a price less than conventional single-source systems. Various Athena sensors are undergoing FAA testing, and the company is in discussions with GA manufacturers about how its products might be incorporated into new aircraft and for retrofit.

Chuck Suma, former CEO of Piper Aircraft, is a consultant to Athena. He spent years at Piper phasing new technology into the company product line. “This is the next market change,” says Suma. “This will take panels to the next level—lower cost, less weight, more efficient. And it doesn’t necessarily affect the pilot interface. It all happens behind the scenes.”

It will be a while before Athena’s products reach the market, so don’t start ripping out all those old wires and black boxes just yet. But expect that someday soon your 1960s-era mechanical instruments may give way to twenty-first-century technology.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org .

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.