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Understanding How Autopilot Systems on a Plane Work

Understanding How Autopilot Systems on a Plane Work

We’ve all used the phrase “running on autopilot” to describe the way we mindlessly go about our tasks. In aviation, the concept of autopilot is anything but mindless. Engaging in autopilot represents the convergence of various technologies to imitate how a pilot’s mind controls a plane.

Human control is ultimately still necessary. However, having autopilot technology or an automatic flight control system (AFCS) helps. It can relieve a pilot from the need to constantly monitor a plane’s operations, especially during long-haul flights. 

Besides takeoffs and landings, pilots usually activate autopilot to allow the system to automatically control 99% of a plane’s operations. Use basic or more advanced aircraft for your pilot training. Eitherway, it’s important for you to understand something important. What autopilot technology does, when it should be used, and how it works.

What Is Autopilot?

The latest aviation systems are computer-controlled to automate the tedious process of keeping a plane safely airborne. Autopilot software is essentially designed to stabilize altitude, speed, pitch, and heading or the location in front of the plane. It eliminates the need for continuous hand-flying by monitoring and handling a plane’s electronic, mechanical, and hydraulic systems while airborne at certain altitudes. 

Autopilot systems are also pre-programmed to follow a flight plan. Most paths being straightforward enough to no longer necessitate manual piloting for extended periods.

When Do We Use Autopilot?

Autopilot technologies are often used in passenger aircraft and activated once conditions have reached certain criteria. Pilots often turn on autopilot once the plane is around 500 to 1,000 feet above the ground. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires pilots to remain “hands-on” when the plane is at an altitude of below 500 feet. Pilots must retain full control of the aircraft throughout takeoff and landing, including while the plane is taxiing around airport premises. Pilots are also required to engage autopilot once the plane has reached an altitude of over 28,000 feet.

Today’s autopilot systems can instantly disengage and signal the pilot to take control of the plane. This is in cases of extreme turbulence, although features may vary with different aircraft. Newer autopilot systems also allow automated landings which can help pilots land their planes during bad weather or low visibility.

How Does Autopilot Work?

Airplane autopilot systems are fitted with high-speed processors to control various components. These include airspeed indicators, accelerometers, and navigation tools such as compasses and GPS technology. Before takeoff, pilots input data such as start and end positions to inform flight route planning. The computer does the rest by taking note of altitude and speed requirements at each point of the route.

Autopilots can have a basic single-axis framework in which the system controls a single piece of equipment, usually the ailerons. The more complex two- or three-axis systems can simultaneously control additional components including the rudder and elevators. 

Autopilot technologies work by creating a feedback loop. This means that it receives signals from a plane’s various mechanisms and executes a response by inhibiting actions. For example, an autopilot system can receive information that the plane’s wings are off-balance. The system acts on this by promptly making corrections and re-leveling the wings.

Is Putting the Plane on Autopilot Safe?

Most modern planes are equipped with redundancies. Meanwhile, pilots and passengers can rest assured. Autopilot systems are well-designed enough to keep working in emergency scenarios. Autopilot systems are built in a way that there will always be a backup system in case one fails. And thanks to automation and “smart” technology, autopilot technologies can detect abnormal operations, analyze solutions, and make the necessary adjustments. 

Some pilots prefer to manually handle most aircraft control procedures, but modern autopilot systems with next-generation automation features can decrease human errors and ensure flight safety while also allowing pilots to free up their time.

Are Pilots Still Necessary?

With all this increased automation, pilots may be worried that they will become obsolete as the machines take over their jobs. However, that’s definitely not the case. Autopilot technologies are built to help pilots manage workload in the cockpit by “learning” how to execute the right solutions through data and algorithms. While these technologies are absolute necessities, it’s important for pilots not to become overly reliant on autopilot and manually handle some procedures such as cross-checks.

Manual flight is still a necessary part of training because pilots need to learn the fundamental aspects of flight given various situations. Having today’s autopilot technology adds to that experience by providing pilots with a useful tool that can make flights easier in compliance with strict safety standards.

See Also

Autopilot and Human Skills Must Go Together

No matter how advanced your autopilot system is, you still need to have the knowledge and expertise to become a good pilot. Autopilot should be treated as a useful tool that can help avoid oversight on system performance and allow pilots to get much-needed rest on a long flight. 

Ultimately, autopilot allows pilots to fully take advantage of modern technology’s capacity to make life easier. But that doesn’t mean that the industry no longer needs skilled pilots that can facilitate the kind of nuanced decision-making that only a human can handle.


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