While pilots do an incredible job of keeping passengers safe during a commercial flight, many will be surprised to learn that 90% of the duration features operations carried out by the autopilot system. This system helps to ensure proper navigation, altitude, and sometimes landing in order to optimize each variable. While the autopilot system is somewhat complex, it is a critical element of the aircraft that must not be overlooked for those interested in aviation. In this blog, we will discuss the nuances of the autopilot system, including its design and implementation.
The automatic flight control system comprises two separate integrated systems, the autopilot and flight director (FD) components. These two systems work hand in hand to ensure the aircraft is on an optimal trajectory towards the destination. The flight director is a series of components that perform the necessary calculations to keep the plane ascending, descending, or stagnant at a given altitude. They also determine the magnitude in which the aircraft must bank in order to navigate properly. While these calculations may be performed in minutes by the pilots, they may become burdensome on longer flights or for trajectories with multiple ascents or descents.
Once the FD has completed its calculations, the information is then sent to the autopilot system. This system is directly linked to the primary flight control surfaces via a series of electromechanical devices and servos. With direct mechanical linkage to the elevators, ailerons, and rudders, the autopilot is able to turn the aircraft while also initiating lift or descent. It is also linked with the throttle system, allowing quick alterations to the airspeed as needed. At any point of the flight, if the pilot must regain control of the plane, the autopilot will instantly disengage with the flip of a switch.
Autopilot is beneficial because it removes an extreme workload from the pilots, giving them time to complete other important tasks, such as weather monitoring and fuel efficiency. It also leads to increased passenger comfort since the system can efficiently keep the aircraft in a relatively level position throughout the duration of the flight. Finally, automated flight allows pilots to focus on the zoomed-out aspect of flying, which includes tasks such as planning to change the route in light of adverse weather conditions or reacting to any malfunctions.
Flight automation is not without its faults. Much of being a good pilot is regularly feeling the effects of different flight conditions on the control surfaces. Another concern is the rare but frightening, sporadic behavior of the autopilot system that may occur. Furthermore, pilots may be distracted by other tasks that, if they must re-engage manual control of the plane, it may take several seconds to regain composure and bearing. Finally, there is an industry-wide concern that automation dependency may take over. In the event of autopilot or FD failure, an automation-dependent flight crew may prioritize restoring those systems instead of focusing on appropriate direction and trajectory. However, there are continued efforts by airlines and regulatory agencies to ensure continued safety when using autopilot.
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