It was a hot but pretty day in Kansas as we strapped in and got the big Pratt fired up on the Piper M600 SLS, the latest model. We agreed that we were thankful for factory air-conditioning. The taxi was short, the takeoff even shorter—we were pretty light—and even before we had gotten much past the end of the runway, New Century Tower directed us to contact Kansas City Departure, which we did. It was all pretty standard stuff, that is, until Departure asked us what our intentions were. Hmmm.
Well, what we wanted to do was turn loose a new feature on this Piper M600 called Autoland. At that point, the plane would be doing the flying and the thinking for us. We were there almost as observers. But we couldn’t say all that.
The system picked the airport, making the best available choice depending on where we were, what the weather was like, what kind of runways and approaches were available, and what kind of terrain was out there, among others. But that was way too much to tell Kansas City. Instead, my demo pilot for the flight, Eric Sargent, simply told them we’d be maneuvering for five or 10 minutes and then returning to New Century for a full-stop landing—and with a stop on the runway. Kansas City was just fine with this. They’re apparently used to planes with call signs that begin with “Garmin Test…” asking to do things that defy easy explication. Eric flew to an area where he was pretty sure Autoland would pick New Century as our emergency diversion. We then turned Autoland loose to do its thing. Hands off of everything, we sat back and watched the digital magic happen.
Back in 2017, I flew the Piper M-600, a sophisticated six-seat pressurized turboprop single, and loved it. It was, in fact, the Plane & Pilot Plane Of The Year. And this M600, dubbed the M600 SLS (for “Safety, Luxury and Support”) wasn’t very different in most outward regards (unless you’ve got an eagle eye), though it’s got a number of quality-of-life improvements. (See sidebar for more.) One of those is the subject of this article: Autoland. It’s a capability that no other GA plane, scratch that, no FAA-certificated plane has had before, which is the ability to land itself in case of emergency while picking the airport and runway to land at. And that’s just part of what it can do.
Just to be clear, the plane pictured here isn’t an Experimental development prototype model. It’s an FAA-certificated plane that you can buy tomorrow. Call Piper—they’d be delighted to sell you one. And to be additionally clear, the system isn’t software only. It can’t be. There are all kinds of physical automation at work here. The autopilot is only the beginning of it.
Garmin didn’t start this program yesterday. The first Autoland flight was in 2014. Yes, five years ago. And the FAA got worked into the program just a year after that. The first Autoland was in February 2016, three and a half years ago. Now, you might be asking what that first flight was in 2014 if it didn’t land. What the heck? What Garmin did initially was to autoland the plane but with a virtual airport in the sky at a few thousand feet above ground level. For obvious reasons, they held off on the braking and engine shutdown tests for those flights.
What Autoland does is jaw-droppingly cutting edge for small planes. It doesn’t just land the plane. It can do the whole deal, from the first step of detecting that there’s a problem with the pilot (the system can also be manually activated) to the last part, which is shutting down the engine after the plane has safely landed. What happens between those bookend events is remarkable. I won’t say that I flew the M-600 for this demonstration. Once we got up to altitude, no one was flying it. Well, it’s more accurate to say the plane was flying itself. And thinking through the process in almost exactly the same way we human pilots do. One might argue, better than humans can.
The process was fundamentally different from using an autopilot. With typical autoflight, the pilot programs, manages and monitors the system. With Autoland, the pilot’s role, at least in a non-demo-flight mission, eliminates the need for the pilot to do any of those things. It’s autonomous operation.
To get the big question out of the way…no, pilots will not be able to turn on the Autoland feature whenever they feel like “flying” what amounts to a fully autonomous plane. They’ll still have to do all regular landings manually. Autoland is an emergency-only function.
But what will keep pilots from flipping a switch and letting the plane land itself? Something that’s remarkably simple: natural consequences. If you program the plane to go land itself somewhere, which is remarkably easy to do, the system will automatically dial up ATC and declare an emergency. Then you’ll have some explaining to do. Will that keep pilots from doing it anyway? Oh, yes it will. If you’re a pilot, you didn’t even have to think about it. And as far as getting around that automatic emergency declaration, well, you can’t.
But if you have a true emergency, there’s nothing that would stop you from giving the plane to Autoland and letting it find a good airport to land at. In addition, it will do the landing, the braking and the stopping of the plane, as well as shutting down the engine—big props spinning in the vicinity of non-aviation-savvy occupants exiting an airplane under less-than-ideal circumstances is a bad idea.
In its materials, Garmin gives two activation scenarios. These are, of course, just two of numerous possibilities. The first is, the plane is cruising along at 20,000 feet and detects no activity from the pilot over a period of time. It will first try to get the pilot’s attention. If there’s still no response, EDM will activate and descend the plane to a lower altitude. After a short while at that altitude, if no activity is detected, Autoland will activate and go through the emergency autoland procedure.
Perhaps less likely in airplanes as capable as the Piper M600, another scenario would be a VFR-only pilot, or one whose skills are very rusty, getting in over their head in instrument conditions while hand-flying the airplane and beginning to lose control of the plane. Garmin points out that the first step will be envelope protection, ESP, keeping the plane inside the edges of the flight envelope with gentle nudges. After a time, ESP will get firmer in its correction. If the pilot still doesn’t respond to keep the plane under control, ESP will activate the Straight and Level Mode (which, of course, the pilot could have done on their own). If the pilot doesn’t disengage the autopilot after a period of time, Autoland will activate.
Garmin stresses that the pilot can retain control of the plane at any time during the process.
The decision to make Autonomi an emergency-only system was in part related to the fact that Piper had to get the M600 certified with the new, game-changing feature. Since using it immediately makes the event an officially declared emergency, the FAA sees Autonomi as a safety system that by definition is better than the alternative. And so it granted the Autonomi-equipped M600 certification.
And knowing the folks at Piper and at Garmin, they believe very strongly in pilots and the role aviators play in the cockpit. Neither company was ready to relinquish control of the plane to, well, to the plane.
Context For The Future
What is Autoland, and how does it fit in with other Garmin safety features? Autoland is a part of a suite of enhanced autoflight and intelligent automation utilities that Garmin calls “Autonomi.” The other two utilities are Electronic Stability and Protection (ESP) (which is Garmin’s envelope protection package) and Emergency Descent Mode (EDM), which will descend the plane automatically if the pilot becomes incapacitated. Autoland is the third leg of Autonomi. It integrates with and takes both ESP and EDM a step or three further. ESP will keep you from departing the flight envelope and, hence, prevent loss of control. EDM will sense if a pilot is incapacitated, most likely due to hypoxia, and descend the plane to an altitude where the air is more breathable.
Autoland gets the plane safely on the ground.
I know—I’ve done it.
It’s Not Just Software
If you think through the steps required to get an airplane on the ground, stopped and engine shut down, it should be obvious that Autoland requires additional equipment.
On the M600, those things are:
- Garmin Autothrottle (yes, we’re excited about that too)
- Flaps and gear authority
- Shutdown access
- A radar altimeter
Autoland won’t work without at least those additional functions, which means additional hardware.
When It Works
As I said, Autoland is an emergency function. If you use it, the system declares an emergency, a real rolling-the-equipment, filling-out-paperwork, talking-to-the-FAA kind of emergency. Then again, in every instance in which Autoland has to be activated (or activates itself), that’s precisely what you want. Well, maybe not the part about the FAA.
Autoland can be activated either by the pilot or a passenger. Or it can activate itself, just as Garmin’s emergency descent utility does. Autoland will detect if the pilot is incapacitated…if no one makes a command of some kind every several minutes, the system will notice, first querying the pilot and then, if no response is forthcoming, beginning the emergency response.
Likewise, a pilot who had determined there’s an emergency situation and doesn’t feel as though they can safely get the plane on the ground can initiate Autoland.
Lastly, if the pilot becomes incapacitated, a passenger can manually start Autoland. How will they know what to do? Autoland will be a part of every preflight briefing with passengers, so they know the drill. After Autoland has been activated, the system begins to communicate with the passengers. This is cool stuff. Piper and Garmin have created an interface that tells the passenger what is and will soon be happening, what to do and how to prepare for it. The directions, which display on the large MFD screens, are clear, concise and, dare I say it, reassuring.
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How It Works
After the system is activated, either manually or automatically, the computer starts looking for an airport to land at. (Remember that the engine is still running fine.) Think about the calculus that goes into this decision. Autoland has to take into account weather, both between you and the airport and at the airport itself. You need to avoid hitting any obstacles or terrain, and you’ve got to aim for a runway that’s long and wide enough and has favorable winds. The system will land you downwind, so long as the tailwind component is light. Finally, the system needs a GPS-based approach with both lateral and vertical guidance. How long does it take Autonomi to make that decision? Garmin volunteered that information: a third of a second.
How does it work in the real world? Back to the cockpit. Eric knew that from a position to the south and slightly to the east of Olathe, New Century, the system would almost certainly choose that airport as the “diversion” destination. Still, you could see the gears in his head whirring as he mentally plugged into his own head the factors he knew Autonomi would use in making its choice. And he was right. Then again, he has flown 300 such landings with the system.
Once Autonomi goes to work, it takes control of the plane, notifying the occupants—remember that the pilot might be unresponsive—of what it’s doing, where it’s going, what will happen next and how to prepare the cockpit for the landing. Autonomi wasn’t intended for pilots only, so the messaging, including the choice of words, tone and timing, are all aimed at an adult non-pilot. Piper worked with Garmin to get the messaging right, and succeeded.
The alerts are shown on the displays and also are given as audible messages over the intercom system.
At the point when Autonomi takes control of the plane—the pilot can always get it back—it has already decided on an alternate airport and runway, and will begin messaging the occupants and turning toward that airport. It has control of the power, so it will apply or decrease thrust according to its new flight plan. When the time comes, it will reduce power, apply flaps, lower the gear, put in landing flaps and set the M600 up for a stabilized final approach.
"To get the big question out of the way…no, pilots will not be able to turn on the Autoland feature whenever they feel like “flying” what amounts to a fully autonomous plane."
On our flight, Autonomi was nearly flawless. Our final approach, to Runway 18 at New Century, was right on the money, with the “needles” centered and the plane properly configured for the landing. The touchdown flare was really good, and the mains hit right on the aiming mark, with the nose gear adding its chirp to the conversation a second later. Like other PA-46s, the M600 SLS does take a bit of skill to land well. Did Autoland do better than I would have done? On a good day, I’d have done as well…is what I tell myself.
One quirk of the M600 is that it will veer on landing if the nose wheel isn’t straight, and we got a little bit of a veer to the right, maybe 15 feet, while we were decelerating, but the system quickly corrected and got us stopped quickly.
To save wear and tear and cycles on the engine in its M600 developmental plane, and because we didn’t want to be shutting down on an active runway, Garmin deactivated the auto shutdown for our flight, so I didn’t get to see that. Then again, it’s not a particularly challenging feat for a system that can do what Autoland can.
Once again, this system is certified and available on the Piper M600.
What will the pilot community’s reaction be to Autoland? I underestimated the degree of animosity many pilots would have toward the whole-airplane parachute system that Cirrus introduced on its first certified plane, the SR20. Will pilots react as strongly to this latest development, a plane that can land itself in case of pilot incapacitation or other emergency? I don’t think so. Instead, I’m guessing that in the nearly 20 years since the Cirrus Airframe Parachute came along, pilots have gotten a lot more comfortable with all kinds of outside-the-box safety systems, including automation.
Besides, unlike with a chute activation, which can greatly damage or destroy the aircraft, after an emergency solved by Autoland, the plane will be just fine. As, hopefully, the occupants will be, as well.
I’ve been lucky enough in my career as an aviation journalist to see some of the most important developments in the history of aviation and to fly the planes that used that new gear. From affordable computerized navigation computers to flat-panel displays to autothrottles to whole-airplane parachute systems to weather in the cockpit, I’ve witnessed firsthand some remarkable, game-changing innovations in aviation.
Because of the likely impact of the technology on the future of general aviation, I think that Autoland is the biggest story of them all. I can’t wait to see what comes down the line.
Pilots (and their families) will soon hear the loud buzz about Autoland and begin asking for it. And while Piper is first with the installation of Autoland in its award-winning turboprop single, don’t expect it to be the only plane maker to install the gear. Not by a long shot. Because it can be adapted to any airframe (the economics of doing so aside), Autoland will almost certainly see new installations in different planes from different companies, and soon.
The world of aviation has just changed.