I had an interesting conversation with one of my readers Kundai about what am writing about today, autopilot at the end of last year which seems so far off yet its barely 3 weeks into the new year. I wanted to laugh, which I did and smiled at the same time when she told me that people tell her that passenger planes can fly unmanned because of autopilot, just like magic. This is a perception that is held by a large portion of ordinary people and I have to confess that I grew up with the same perception as well till I did my own research as I grew older and curious. So what exactly is this thing called autopilot?
An autopilot is a system used to control the trajectory of an aircraft without constant ‘hands-on’ control by a human operator being required. Autopilots do not replace human operators but assist them in controlling aircraft, allowing them to focus on broader aspects of operations such as monitoring the trajectory, weather and systems.
In the early days of aviation, aircraft required the continuous attention of a pilot in order to fly safely. As aircraft range increased allowing flights of many hours, the constant attention led to serious fatigue. As you can see in the picture below the cockpit looks more like a clutter and the two pilots in the cockpit have to go through 70% of the controls and knobs in the flight deck, an imposing task for any human being.
An autopilot is designed to perform some of the tasks of the pilot.The picture below shows the cockpit panel of an aircraft and the essential roles of the autopilot system in a conventional modern aircraft.
For autopilot to kick in, the pilot will first set his necessary flight parameters and aircraft performance requirements. He will set his altitude and vertical speed, set his speed and heading as well as turn on the auto-throttle switch. These are the basic switches that are controlled by the autopilot. Once set and the necessary switches turned on, the pilot will then turn on the Autopilot switch to engage it and take over control of the basic functions of the aircraft. The pilot still has to listen to radio transmissions and tune in to required frequencies as well as in put commands such as turning the aircraft and its altitude for the autopilot.
Because an aircraft is such a complicated machine that has too many switches and functions to monitor, an on board computer systems plays a background role of monitoring the aircraft’s performances and letting the pilots know the state of their aircraft. The data is captured by instruments such as the FDR flight data recorder and other instruments that provide real time data to the pilot through the onboard flight displays and warning buttons.
It might look too much for a human mind but everything is designed and properly aligned for maximum efficiency and operation of the aircraft. Yes we have drones and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and they fly unmanned by they required remote control. The technology is now there for passenger planes to fly without humans in control but that technology is not yet in public use, just private and testing environments only.
AviaConnect (The Flying Man)