December 19, 2012
By Alton K. Marsh
Next up, the biggest advance in general aviation since pilots learned to find their destination by keeping the little airplane icon on the pink line of their GPS moving map screens. Autoland is finally here for small aircraft, not just the big boys anymore. Diamond Aircraft CEO Christian Dries said it also opens the way to radical new aircraft designs that are possible only with computer-controlled flight controls.
When the GPS revolution hit, it was common to hear airline pilots say the little airplanes had more information in the cockpit than they did. This time, it was the airliner manufacturers who led the way with systems that land and bring large aircraft to a halt on the center line. Diamond Aircraft will be the first to bring that technology down to smaller airplanes. (That’s unless Garmin—said to be working on a similar system—beats them to it. Garmin spokeswoman Mica Cohn said she couldn’t comment on “unannounced technologies.”)
In a phone call from his office in Austria, Dries said he will offer by 2016 a $100,000 option—the first fly-by-wire autoland system for general aviation. It will be offered to customers for the upper end of the Diamond line—to include the single-engine DA50 and the multiengine DA52. Other models haven’t been decided.
Diamond, as part of a research consortium, has already demonstrated a fly-by-wire system in a DA42 called an electronic parachute that prevents unintentional flight maneuvers that could overstress the aircraft. The consortium includes Austria, Germany, The Netherlands, Czech Republic, Spain, and Belgium, and is called Small Aircraft Future Avionics Architecture. Here’s a video report on it. The 2016 date is dependent on the consortium completing its work.
Either the pilot can trigger the autoland system, or the airplane can do it. Should the airplane software detect that it is near the destination but the pilot has made no responses, such as might happen in a medical emergency, the airplane software can initiate an approach and automatic landing, Dries said. “In the long run, fly-by-wire technology for smaller aircraft will allow us completely new designs—like vertical takeoff, high-speed flying, at the same time instable aircraft designs which can be flown only by computers. As you know, some military aircraft are already designed in that way.”
“What we’d like to achieve is envelope protection and autoland capability,” Dries said. Not only that, but flight trials begin in the summer of 2013 on a DA42 developed by Aurora Flight Sciences of Manassas, Va., that can fly just fine by itself or, optionally, with pilots aboard.
“It will make the airplane in any case a lot safer,” Dries said. He suggested that such automated aircraft could lead to a review of health conditions for pilots that are less restrictive than today, because the airplane is doing a lot of the job. Basic four-seat training airplanes like the DA40 will most likely not have the option to install the system, he said. He said it is too early to rule out the DA40. While the system is capable of an auto-takeoff, that feature will not be needed when pilots are aboard.
Dries noted the airplane will not only touch down using the automated landing system, but stop.
He didn’t set 2016 as a firm delivery date for the system, but it won’t take much longer than that. “In 2016, or later, this system will be installed during production,” he said. He said the price for a standard model without the system will “most likely” not increase, even though it will contain wiring and fittings to allow installation of the autoland fly-by-wire system.
AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.
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