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A safer way to fly? New technology enables a plane to land itself

Last summer in Australia, a man taking flying lessons for the first time was forced to land a small aircraft when his instructor passed out at the controls. Everyone was okay, but it was a harrowing incident that might have been avoided had the airplane been able to land on its own.

Around the same time, a private aircraft company called Cirrus was demonstrating to a group of journalists a technology called Autoland. In an airplane equipped with Autoland, the company said, any occupant can initiate an automated emergency landing by pressing a big red button in the airplane’s ceiling. If the pilot is incapacitated, even someone who has never been inside an airplane before can get the aircraft safely onto an airport runway, Cirrus promised.

Autoland was developed by the navigation and avionics company Garmin. Beginning next year, Cirrus, headquartered in Minnesota, plans to include Autoland — Cirrus calls the technology Safe Return — as standard equipment on its single-engine Vision personal jet. Meanwhile, Florida-based Piper Aircraft plans to use it in its M600 propeller plane. Each aircraft with the system must be separately certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA expects to certify the Piper airplane later this year and the Cirrus plane sometime next year, an FAA spokesperson said.

Eventually, Garmin hopes other aircraft companies will incorporate the technology.

“Over time, the whole industry is moving toward, ‘How do you and I get on a plane and press one button, it takes off, flies all the way there, lands, stops, and you and I get out,'” said Ben Kowalski, head of marketing for Cirrus. “This is just the first step.”

Even sophisticated commercial aircraft rarely land themselves. In the few cases that they do, it’s only under ideal conditions and with the close supervision of a highly qualified pilot.

Autoland is intended for use in genuine emergencies only. The system is designed to land the plane when the pilot is unconscious or dead. If the button is pressed, the cockpit’s multiple display screens all show warnings that occupants should keep their hands and feet away from the controls. If the pilot regains consciousness, the plane can be brought back under human control, Kowalski explained.

Once initiated, the system will seek out the nearest usable airport given the size of the aircraft and the circumstances, and contact the control tower. A computerized voice tells the control tower the airplane is declaring an emergency and is on its way in for an immediate landing. The control tower will then tell other aircraft to clear the way, added Kowalski.

“In the flight deck computer, it now has a database of the entire terrain of everywhere in the world. It’s got every obstacle. So all these cell phone towers, all these towers anywhere, they’re all in the database,” said Kowalski.

If it’s flying into an area where there’s a risk of ice forming on the wings, the airplane will turn on its de-icing system, Kowalski said.

“It’s acting just like a pilot would act when that happens,” Kowalski said.

Besides the terrain database, the Autoland system relies on an integrated system of sensors, including GPS and radar. It will work even with small airports that do not have sophisticated instrument landing systems to help guide airplanes in, Kowalski said.

The system also flies the plane around storms on its way to the airport, Kowalski explained, and lands the plane into the wind so it can fly as slowly as possible. The plane will then land on the runway and come to a complete stop. Emergency services personnel at the airport will already have been notified and will meet the plane.

During the demonstration flight in the Cirrus jet for journalists in August, we were able to hear the clear female voice calling out the emergency. In this case, it was being played just for us to hear. It wasn’t actually being broadcast to the control tower, as it would in a genuine emergency. (Declaring an aircraft emergency when there really isn’t one is a serious violation of aviation regulations.) At the same time that the system is communicating with the control tower, the same calm voice tells the people inside the aircraft, at regular intervals, how long it will be until they are safely on the ground.

The system will also turn on automatically if a pilot becomes incapacitated while alone in the aircraft, Kowalski said. If no input from the pilot is detected for a period of time, the plane will enter a sort of standby mode in which it will fly straight and level. A warning tone will sound and, if the pilot responds by moving any of the controls, the plane will return to normal control, he said. If not, the plane will enter Autoland, mode.

The problem the new system is intended to resolve isn’t terribly common. The bigger issue, Kowalski said, is that concerns about things like the potential loss of a pilot prevent people from wanting to fly in small aircraft at all.

Cirrus’ airplanes — both its jets and propeller planes — already have what the company calls the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System — an enormous parachute, big enough to carry the entire airplane to the ground. In the event of a catastrophic mechanical failure, someone inside the airplane can pull a lever in the ceiling. The airplane immediately kicks its nose up toward the sky, putting its belly into the wind to quickly slow the plane. At the same time, a parachute pops out from the roof and the airplane will slowly descend, coming to the ground belly first.

The Autoland system could be a good addition to this suite of safety technology, said Mary Schiavo, a CNN analyst and an attorney specializing in aviation. Schiavo’s firm has been involved in litigation against Cirrus unrelated to the Autoland technology. Her only concern, she said, was that some older aircraft still don’t have the modern radio technology needed to receive automated emergency signals that would warn of an incoming pilotless aircraft, but that’s a larger issue for the FAA to resolve, she said. Older planes will be warned of the unpiloted plane’s approach by radio from the airport control tower, a Cirrus spokesman said.

CNN