When Garmin released its incredible new safety utility, autoland, and two aircraft manufacturers, Piper and Cirrus, announced its imminent certification in their flagship planes, the M600 SLS and the SF-50 Vision Jet, respectively, it was a big deal. A short while later, Daher announced its TBM 940 would have Autoland, as well. By my reading, at the time of its launch, it was the number one topic of conversation in aviation chat groups across the segments. Airline pilots, bush pilots, homebuilders, and the private Jet-A crowd were all talking about Autoland.
And now, the technology has won the Robert J. Collier Trophy for 2020 for the top achievement in aerospace. Garmin is beaming with pride over the selection.
And well they should be. The introduction is absolutely revolutionary. In the short term, it’s an automatic autoland feature that when a critical emergency calls, will pick an airport to land your plane at, it will configure the flaps, gear, and power correctly throughout the landing sequence, bring your plane down on the centerline, stop it, shut off the engine, all while giving constant passenger briefings about what’s happening and what will happen next. It stops just short of leaving a mint on your pillow, but Garmin might well be working on that too.
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This is incredible, mind-bending, revolutionary stuff. That much I knew within 15 minutes of arriving at my briefing this summer at Garmin’s flight test headquarters at New Century Field in Olathe, Kansas. The briefing, presented by an impressive team from Garmin who’d been up to the elbows in Autoland for years, covered everything you might want to know about the technology.
Well, it covered everything except one thing, what it means beyond this.
Because make no mistake about it, this technology is only the tip of a spear that will slice through our notion of what it is to be a pilot and what it is to fly a plane.
Which is simultaneously terrible and wonderful. The technology, which Garmin calls Autonomi, Piper brands as Halo and Cirrus refers to as Safe Return, is part of an overall concept that is known as autonomous flight.
Let’s start with the upside. Autoland is incredible, but it’s not by any stretch the first autonomous flight capability on aircraft. Numerous commercial jets have autoland capability, admittedly far less capable than Autoland, and your brand new Cessna Skyhawk features both envelope protection, which helps keeps pilots from banking more steeply, going faster, slower or descending too quickly than they should be. There’s also Garmin’s Emergency Descent Mode (EDM), which will descend the plane to a more breathable level if the pilot stops interacting with the flight control system and, hence, is presumed to have become incapacitated. Autoland is the answer to the question, what happens then.
At my briefing, Garmin pointed out on several occasions that the technology was patented, and what I asked next caused both a wide-eyed pause and smile, not just from the person I was asking, one of the engineers whose name is on the patent, but from everyone in the room. My question was, is this a part of an initiative by Garmin to create full autonomous flight capabilities that could be used on everything from drones to human carrying, pilot-less planes.
I don’t recall exactly how they answered the question, or if they did answer it at all.
The expressions told me everything I wanted to know.
What does this mean to you and me, humans whose greatest pleasure (beyond those more important things I don’t have to name) is flying airplanes. Doing the flying. Hands-on the stick or yoke or control bar as we’re winging along under blue skies or grey, masters of our direction and destination.
Autonomi and all it implies–fully autonomous, push-button station-to-station flights—is a capability I have no doubt and without any inside information is one that Garmin already possesses.
Will it change the world? It already has. For now, such systems help us by coming to the rescue in ways both small and large, in the planes in which such technology is installed. The bigger picture will take years to come into focus. Our planes are not yet able to support what an autonomous system needs, which is autothrottle(s), a very sensitive altimeter and brake- gear- and flaps-by-wire capability.
Those features will become ubiquitous, and before long the system will be doing the piloting, if we pilots want it to, that is.
The concept isn’t that new. We’ve been embracing this technology for decades already. After all, what is an autopilot, especially one linked to the nav computer, except a programmable autonomous flight system that we can turn on and off to suit our needs.
The next step is just that we’ll be able to turn it on sooner and leave it on longer. Or maybe just speak our destination. “Autonomi, take us to Denver,” and away you will go.
Like it or not, that’s the future, well, a big part of it, anyways. We’ll still be pilots and still fly our own planes, because that’s what we love to do. But at some point, many other people commanding small planes from point to point across this amazing planet of ours will be dreaming of someday becoming a pilot.