|Presentation Date||October 30, 2012|
The autopilot system was originally developed by Lawrence Sperry in the early 1900’s. It was built using gyroscopes that maintained the pitch, yaw, and roll of the aircraft. A gyroscope would control each of the axes of rotation and would maintain the stability of the aircraft much like a bicycle remains upright because of the spinning wheels. Sperry was able to demonstrate his mechanical auto-pilot in the Airplane Safety Competition held in France in 1914. On his first pass in front of the judges, he took his hands away from the controls which was very impressive at the time. On the second pass, he climbed out onto the wing as the plane, and on the third pass, his co-pilot and himself walked out on to either wing leaving the plane completely under the control of the autopilot. The system was very successful.
The idea of the autopilot has not changed much since. More aspects of the aircraft are controlled including gyroscopes, accelerometers, altimeters, compasses and airspeed indicators. The system is now controlled by a computer running some very basic AI. The automatic flight control system, or AFCS has many sensors that monitor all of the aspects of the plane’s flight. If one of the sensors is reporting that it is outside of the bounds of the control mode set by the pilot, then it signals the correct mechanical servo to make the necessary adjustments to keep the aircraft within the control mode.
This all happens within a negative feedback loop many times a second. This allows autopilot systems to have faster reactions than human pilots. However, this does not mean that auto-pilot systems are without flaws.
There have been several accidents due to autopilot malfunctions. Generally, this happens as a sensor failure which causes the system to attempt to correct an issue that may not actually be a problem. For example, an aircraft could have a pitch sensor that fails causing the system to perceive the aircraft as pointing straight up. It would correct and cause the plane to dive, causing the plane to crash. However, this can be easily corrected by trained pilots.
Overall, the autopilot system has not changed much from its origins. But modern technology has made it more capable and more reliable. It uses very basic Artificial Intelligence principles, but those have proven to be effective in this situation.