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Eventually anybody can land a plane…

The interface of Autonomi has been designed for passengers, not for a pilot. It does not require any training at all and provides information aiming at re-assuring the passengers that everything is under control and the flight is safe. Image credit: Garmin

Last years Garmin announced an auto-landing feature for its navigation system. If a pilot is no longer able to fly the plane all it takes is a passenger to press a button for 2 seconds to engage the auto-landing system. You might object that we have had planes able to land themselves using ILS (Instrumental Landing Systems) for quite some time but the ILS requires a pilot to take the plane to intercept the gliding path plus managing several other aspects, like flaps, speed, braking….

With the Garmin Autonomi the activation of the auto-land system starts up a number of processes that eventually result in the safe landing of the plane to the nearest available airport. One process searches for availability of a nearby airport and communicate with the ATC -Air Traffic Control -(using voice as if it were a pilot) declaring an emergency, the position of the aircraft and the request to land at that airport asking for clearance. Once received (again via voice from the ATC) the clearance for a specific runway it creates a flight plan and gets it cleared from the ATC (vectors, altitude and speed) then engages the autopilot on that flight plan. Periodically it communicates to the ATC first and to the airport Tower the aircraft position, verifying clearance and sets all the parameters of the aircraft to approach and then land, including voice messages to passengers (like: “ladies and gentlemen we are 10 minutes from landing, please fasten your seat belt”….). Once the plane has landed it provides instructions to passengers on how to open the doors and when to do that … (take a look at the video clip).

On May 18th, 2020, the first plane equipped with this system, a Piper, received the FAA certification to use this feature. It is an amazing result that opens the door to a new era of flying, not as much for commercial aircrafts but for the future flying cars that we have been dreaming about and that have been remained at the prototype demonstration stage because of safety concerns. One of this concern is about what would happen if the driver (is it a driver or a pilot?  -we are stepping into murky waters) becomes incapacitated. The other issue is how to manage a growing traffic density (I will address this in a future post).

What is also interesting is that Autonomi has been designed to retrofit existing aircrafts. It just requires that the aircraft is equipped with a good auto landing system. Autonomi is basically replacing the pilot, not the auto landing system of the plane.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.

One comment

  1. Technically aircraft equipped with autopilot and IFR instrument landing systems could land entirely automatically on fields equipped with VHF localizers and UHF glide slope transmitters SINCE 1949. While instrument landing systems were approved by FAA for use at night and during low visibility Autopilot control came later. The first autopilots were analog systems. Operational amplifiers within them had to be set for the characteristic of the individual aircraft using precision resistors. These had to be adjusted when the weight and balance changed due to loading, thus they could only be used experimentally. Even so the ILS made it easy to land for anyone who knew how to use a stick and pedals to stay on the flight path that instruments showed. For safety purposes if the ILS was not working correctly flags came out on the indicator and the pilot would have to abort and switch to the second set of receivers. Location (Left-Right) receivers were often channels of the VHF communication and/or VOR navigation receivers. I never held a pilot’s license but I had an FAA instrument repairman license and I flew with pilots in the second seat to witness how easy it was to fly on instrumentation. Now with GPS it is possible to know the precise altitude as well as the lat-long position of aircraft. If that works it might beat the old ILS. All airfields are not equipped with advanced versions of the old analog systems now, but with GPS they may not be needed anymore. It is interesting that as early as 1949 UHF equipment was used fo Glide Slope. At that time UHF frequencies were exotic and were not yet used for TV. Early development was a combined effort of US corporations including Hughes, Collins, Bendix, and RCA.