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Humanizing Tech

Acronyms for Autonomous Airplanes

A decade of aviation wisdom condensed into a single page

I. Aviation Acronyms

We had the lovely opportunity to talk to a new friend this week. To say he knew his stuff about aviation is a bit of an understatement. He boiled down about a decade of experience into a single hour-long conversation.

Clearly maintaining confidentiality is important so what I will share with you fine folks is some of the eponymous acronymns we spoke about and how, yes, today’s airplanes are autonomous already. You likely didn’t know that. As you might expect there are many subtleties around these generic terms and solutions that real practitioners need to be aware of. Because it’s those things that make all the difference.

  • MSG3 [Skybrary]: Maintenance Steering Group Logic is a way to establish a minimal safe maintenance program. It’s how you bring an aircraft into an operational environment from a test bed from Serial #1 to #2. Fatigue test components like wing flex, to establish a true life of aircraft parts that might be different than the standard manufacturer-provided life. But you might be surprised to know that a crack in an aircraft blade is perfectly acceptable when you haven’t looked at it yet because the plane is still operating well.
  • HTM [Gulfstream]: Aircraft Health Trend Monitoring Unit gathers and transmits massive amounts of real-time data while the plane is flying. It’s a system to identify which aspects of the plane are outside of normal range (i.e., anomaly detection) so you can do something about it.
  • EFB [National Aviation Business Association]: Electronic Flight Bag that performs either simple or avionic-connected flight planning (i.e., navigation, flight plans, check lists, weather, etc). One real-world downside to complex software like this is it needs a human-in-the-loop. In one instance, the EFB didn’t have the data for the length of a runway and therefore wouldn’t let the pilot start up the plane to take off because it appeared too dangerous.
  • DOD/FOD [Boeing Policy]: Domestic Object Debris / Foreign Object Debris that can be found in or on the aircraft from being in its environment. Interestingly, what much of this means is that an engine could be damn near destroyed and if you look at it, strike fear into pilot’s hearts everywhere. But if it’s still operating above a certain threshold of performance, is still considered capable of flying. The reason is that grounding any sort of flight or getting maintenance on it is incredibly costly. The decision partly comes down to Engine Trend Monitoring and whether maintenance needs to wash the engine or if it’s just a degradation of components.
  • ETOPS [Wikipedia]: Extended Range Operations which is important for long-range flights over oceans. It’s there so you take a more direct route over land and make you aware of how far you can go on a single engine, for instance, in the case of engine failure.
  • FDR [L3 Products]: Flight Data Recorder that most people are familiar with. It’s the “black box” that records data coming off the aircraft, and the pilot’s response to those actions. It is then used as a simulation in the case of a crash. The 11 data components that are recorded are: time, altitude, airspeed, vertical acceleration, heading, time of each radio transmission either to or from air traffic control, pitch attitude, roll attitude, longitudinal acceleration, control column or pitch control surface position, thrust of each engine.

As you can see, most of this is related to safety. Because people are essentially flying hundres of miles per hour tens of thousands of feet in the air in an aluminum can, safety is one of the most important aspects of aviation. But it’s not as mission critical as you would think in practice because much has been learned over the decades on what is and is not acceptable for safe flight.

That said, businesses have shut down because they’re not doing the appropriate level of trend monitoring so the program is taken seriously by the FAA and pilots.

A green, yellow, and red, if you will. Green and yellow, you’re still going flying. Red means maintenance.

II. Autonomous Aircraft

Most aircraft are autonomous already. It really comes down to three things:

  1. Aircraft (fly-by-wire)
  2. Airport
  3. Pilot

All you have to do is to push a button on the side of the stick and then pull back to take off. It can also land the plane for you. Once you’re above 50 feet in the air the entire plane can be run on autopilot, though you do have two real pilots for redunandy.

But high-precision GPS is one of the most important aspects of autonomy. Your first instinct is that you might need 3 GPS satellites to triangulate your position, but practically you need 5. The fourth gives altitude and the fifth is for redundancy.

  • WAAS [FAA]: Wide Area Augmentation System that is a very precise positioning system anywhere around the globe. Without getting into too much details of the military’s Defense system, the accuracy of such a system can be changed so our enemies can’t use our system against us.

One big problem that most senior pilots will describe is the effect of a cross-wind. That’s the video where you’ve seen a plane pointing sideways even though it’s flying straight (called de-crabbing the aircraft). The complexity there is you have to steer with ailerons. There is some level of automation will do this maneuver for you.

As you become closer to the ground, the automated landing precess turns to a roll-type steer to a rudder-type steer. The squat switchers are positively engaged, which allows the spoilers, thrust reverse and flaps to retract.

Then, if you push the same button on the side of the power levers, it will power the engines up, and re-stow all the landing controls. So even if you touch down, will take back off. That’s necessary for fighter jets landing on aircraft carriers. The moment the plane touches down, you go full-power just in case the cable breaks you don’t plummet into the ocean.


Your Recommended Reading

  1. How To Commute With An Airplane Today
  2. Self-Flying Car Startups
  3. Self-Driving Channel
  4. When Uber Overtakes Airline & Space Travel
  5. The Threat of China’s Space Program

Acronyms for Autonomous Airplanes was originally published in Humanizing Tech on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

from Stories by Sean Everett on Medium http://ift.tt/2nKgW2o