by Harold Green
Published in Midwest Flyer – April/May 2019 issue
Normally this column is focused on aircraft operations. However, for this issue of Midwest Flyer Magazine, we are going to take a detour and try to look at what is happening in personal flying and where the future is likely to go.
There can be very few people in aviation not aware of the advantages offered by Global Positioning Systems. Glass cockpits have become commonplace and the old vacuum-driven instruments with the failure prone vacuum pump are on their way out. We have access to more or less real time weather in flight, situational awareness (if we learn how to use it) that is excellent, communications capability that was unheard of even a decade ago, and autopilots that can fly the aircraft in virtually all conditions, and even save our back side if we get into a graveyard spiral or otherwise lose control of the aircraft. Basically, this is just the tip of the iceberg for future development.
The technology that led us to this point has been in development basically since the transistor in 1947.
Semiconductor technology required more than electronics. It required material purity – photographic capability for precision photolithography masks – handling some very nasty chemicals and the ability to maintain a clean manufacturing atmosphere. This led to Micro Electrical Mechanical Systems (MEMS), which give us the gyro sensors and other miniature sensors at a low cost and increased reliability. We also have displays that can be easily read in bright sunlight. Because these technologies are so ubiquitous, being used in a variety of applications, they will be with us and even develop further with time. In short, for once we are in a position to take advantage of the cost reductions inherent in consumer application volumes. We can expect the basic capabilities to grow, even though the underlying technology may change. Consequently, what we see today is but a prologue of what is to come.
There are also ongoing airspace regulatory changes, which portend a vastly modified airspace configuration.
Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) offers the potential for more effective airspace utilization with reduced controller intervention. One can expect this capability to increase with time.
As a further factor, various entities are attempting to use drones for delivery and even for automated air taxis. These demands will impact our ability to use the airspace.
While the technology may well support such things, the bureaucratic overhead is tremendous. The changes needed to accommodate these often-conflicting needs will require much bureaucratic travail and time.
Just to place some perspective on our current situation, consider that we are just a few small steps away from completely technically automating flying right now.
A modern advanced technology airplane comes equipped with a three-axis autopilot, global positioning equipment containing geo-referenced approach plates and en-route charts. Today we could, in theory, load the route to our destination into our GPS and our autopilot – including the initial altitude – line the plane up with the runway and pour on the power and go! Once our aircraft is airborne, we could turn on the autopilot and sit back and enjoy the ride until told which approach to use at our destination. There are only two things missing here – an auto-throttle and flight commands from air traffic control. An auto-throttle is already available on large aircraft and on the Cirrus Vision Jet. Frankly from an engineering standpoint, it is virtually a no-brainer. (Certification is another issue, but technically, it is no big deal.)
Just for perspective, consider the progress being made in autonomous automobiles. If self-driving cars are possible with the complexity of the environment in which they operate, how simple must it be for airplanes? Technically, this is not such a big deal, but from a regulation and infrastructure viewpoint, it is a different story. Nevertheless, it is coming. When, is a matter of conjecture, but a decade or two is probably a good guess.
When autonomous flying comes about, what else can we expect? Impossible to say for sure, but there are a few things one can say with certainty.
At first not everyone will be involved. Most pilots will initially continue as we are today as the transition begins, but over time, this group will diminish. That means some means of separation must be provided. In addition, drone operations will most likely be approved for deliveries, agricultural use, etc. Therefore, more degrees of separation must be provided. That means some further architectural changes must be made to the airspace system to attempt to separate the various elements. This will take time and will involve various entities.
In addition to the government, there are a number of non-governmental organizations that will be involved in an attempt to structure the system in the form they feel will best suits the needs of their members. These include, but are not limited to, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), National Air Transportation Association (NATA), RTCA (previously referred to as the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics), and a host of other organizations less directly involved with actual operations, such as the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). Why bring all these up? Just to show that the bureaucracy overhead will be tremendous. That is not all bad because this is a subject, which must be considered in-depth before finalization.
What will flying be like when this happens? Can’t say for sure, but the following is not unrealistic.
You will be able to file a flight plan just like today. Your clearance will likely be delivered via satellite communication. You will program that clearance into the aircraft system much as you do today. In fact, you may be able to submit the flight plan directly from your aircraft. You will add climb speed to the system. The clearance will be automatically entered into your system and you will have to acknowledge receipt and understanding. Upon departure, you will line up on the runway, punch one button and off you’ll go!
Your aircraft will fly the assigned heading or route, climb to altitude and follow the assigned routing to your destination, adjusting power as it goes. If there are changes along the route, you will be notified, and in keeping with your role as pilot-in-command, you will signify acceptance via keyboard. If there is a significant concern, voice communications will be used as it is today. If you concur with the changes, a simple press of a button will signify that you have received and accept them. The aircraft systems will then execute those changes with no more input from you.
More sophisticated systems than exist today will be monitoring the weather along your route and advise you of potentially hazardous conditions. Reroutes, as a result, can be requested from ARTCC, as they can be today. Again, it is within the realm of possibility the system will automatically pick the best route, including “Let’s land and wait for this to pass!” You could even be given a clearance to change heading/altitude as required with the onboard equipment, keeping ATC advised of your actions. Of course, you will be able to override any system changes.
Upon reaching your destination, the system will fly the approach for you, including a missed approach if required. In the event of a missed approach, you will be provided options and can select the best one in your opinion. Naturally, the system will close your flight plan as well.
Hopefully along the way, room will be left for those of us who enjoy the challenge of flying with a sectional (road maps don’t show restricted airspace), having radio contact only on the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) at small airports, and pilotage/dead reckoning all the way. If they want to know where I am, that’s fine, but just let me make my own decisions and fly in peace. If I want to go somewhere specific for a reason other than the enjoyment of the trip, okay, but otherwise, just let me do my thing without all that help.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Instrument Instructor (CFII, MEII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). A flight instructor since 1976, Green was named “Flight Instructor of the Year” by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011 and is a recipient of the “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.” Questions, comments and suggestions for future topics are welcomed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 608-836-1711 (www.MoreyAirport.com).
DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.