A glider with fly-by-wire ailerons and flaps soared the California skies with a celebrated test pilot at the controls. The glider is the brainchild of a Brazilian designer who aims to bring automation to light aviation.
Test pilot Jim Payne, who earned accolades for his work with the Airbus-sponsored Perlan Project flying a glider to a new altitude record in 2018, was the man in the cockpit of the Nixus Project glider designed by Paulo Iscold, a native of Brazil who teaches at California Polytechnic State University and also works with Red Bull Air Race pilot Kirby Chambliss’ team.
Iscold initially undertook the challenge of proving fly-by-wire flight controls (starting with ailerons and flaps) can guide a glider outside of the university. The Nixus Project was funded by Brazilian businessman and glider pilot Sergio Andrade, aiming to develop technologies to simplify the tasks of flying. Iscold said a structural failure of his custom-designed wing during ground testing in June happened a week before he decided to settle in at Cal Poly, and that setback had a silver lining.
“That’s what we did last semester, rebuilt the wing,” Iscold said. The test failure created an opportunity to give his Cal Poly students hands-on experience building composite structures and developing technology that Iscold believes will be essential elements of aviation’s future.
“This is so valuable,” Iscold said of the opportunity to get his students involved. “For me that’s way more important than the performance of the airplane itself.”
That is not to say a record or two is out of the question: “If I can get Jim Payne hooked on this project and the airplane performs as expected, then yeah, records are going to fall.”
Implementing fly-by-wire controls is not a new technology to GA, though to date it’s been reserved for turbine aircraft. An onboard computer programmed to translate control stick movements into a complex and coordinated actuation of a dozen ailerons and flaps makes Nixus unlike any other glider. The custom-designed wing was matched with a commercially produced fuselage, and a former U.S. Air Force base was chosen for the first flight. Nearly 12,000 feet of wide runway made Castle Airport near Merced, California, an appealing choice. “We need space,” Iscold said.
The successful first flight sets the stage to expand the flight envelope and prove concepts that are the building blocks of future designs described in academic circles as a “facilitated airplane,” incorporating technology to assist pilots in much the same way that self-driving cars have already been developed. Iscold likes to use an analogy of a horse and bicycle to explain this vision.
“On a bicycle, if you don’t keep moving your body correctly, you just fall,” Iscold said. “You can be drunk on top of a horse and he will take you home if it’s a good horse. Airplanes today are like the bicycle.”
Fly by wire is a “small part” of a future in which the most sophisticated autopilots of today become analogous to a simple cruise control in cars, and future airplanes will become far simpler to operate, Iscold said. The technology also can help train the next generation of pilots, giving students freedom to learn with a computer keeping them from getting into too much trouble.
The Nixus Project glider, which retains mechanical control linkages for the elevator, represents an incremental step in that direction.