EZ-FLY: Researching Easier To Fly Aircraft

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In the airline and military realm, fly-by-wire control has become old hat but because of expense and certification complexity, the technology hasn’t trickled down to light aircraft general aviation. Some in the industry, however, believe that digital control architecture and the enhanced stability it can offer might make airplanes easier to fly and would thus kick the door open to higher aircraft demand. A company called Flight Level Engineering is just completing a project for the FAA that could lay the foundation for certification of such systems, for which there may be no significant manufacturing barriers.

The project, called EZ-FLY, was briefed late last year at a conference on the General Aviation Manufacturers Association Simplified Vehicle Operations initiative. It was held at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. The research project used a specially modified Navion equipped with hydraulic and electric servos that was originally built as a variable-stability platform to train test pilots. Researcher Borja Martos says that it made a perfect vehicle for exploring both how such systems might be certified but, more important, how human pilots might interact with them.

Martos and fellow researcher Noel Duerkson said the SVO concept hasn’t been precisely defined by either the industry or the FAA, but it’s clear that with new urban mobility concepts materializing every week, cutting-edge aircraft design is moving toward stabilized or highly augmented autoflight. Although Flight Level’s research used digital architecture to overlay the Navion’s mechanical control circuitry, a larger goal of the project was to learn how untrained human pilots would react to a simplified control system that would, theoretically, allow a pilot to fly with a fraction of the training now required. The overarching goal is to increase access to general aviation, with a side benefit of reducing loss- of-control accidents.

Martos said the company’s research on how humans interact with such a machine was eye opening. “We found it was a much more integrated problem than we thought,” he said. The idea was to put a zero-time test subject in the cockpit, provide minimum familiarization and record the results. Various displays and control inputs were tried. “Figuring out what works for the display was completely backward from what we thought it would be,” Martos said. 

Curiously, the concept isn’t entirely new and dates from NASA’s Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiment (AGATE) program two decades ago, which Duerkson worked on. The EZ-FLY concept existed then and required a baggage compartment full of processing horsepower to function. Now, says Duerkson, the same thing can be done in a box the size of a typical GA autopilot, making such a system both realistic to certify and manufacture. Projects like EZ-FLY will lay the foundation for paths to certification.

While the Navion provided a practical aircraft for testing, the overall concept is platform agnostic and could be applied to multi-rotor aircraft as well. Duerkson says the EZ-FLY project is one step on the road to certifiable autonomous flight. “We think we have to do this in steps. The FAA expects that and we think the general public expects it,” Duerkson says.

The impact on aircraft cost could be significant, eventually. Theoretically, aircraft that are easier to fly would attract more buyers and volume manufacturing would drive down prices. AGATE’s research, says Duerkson, suggested that a tenfold volume increase would reduce costs by half.

Comments (11)

Wow... just wow. Since I actually work in the military UAS industry where everything is fly by wire, do these folks have any idea as to the expense they are trying to swallow? I'd have to say absolutely not.

Whatever the cost of the air frame is, double it and you might be in the ballpark. Now throw in the maintenance and obsolescence issues for replacement systems every 10 years or so and a well trained human pilot at the stick doesn't seem to be such a bad idea.

One is not talking about cheep personal drone avionics here. One is talking human rated systems... pesky 6-sigma type systems.

Play all you want and by all means, learn. But have you looked at what it takes in the military and the commercial airline industries to keep those fly-by-wire systems operating? The knowledge base to repair them? The infrastructure?

On a GA aircraft??? Fagedaboudit!

Posted by: Donald Romani | January 16, 2019 6:37 AM    Report this comment

Just yesterday, during a very long drive home from the Keys, my wife was looking at some 18 wheelers going by on I-95 and asked a poignant and parallel question. "How will 'they' ever make 18 wheelers totally autonomous? As we discussed it, a bevy of situations promptly popped up which we saw as absolute show stoppers. E.G., what if the truck breaks down in traffic? How will it know a police officer is trying to stop it? And if it gets a ticket ... who gets the ticket. The software designer or ?? What happens when it needs fuel? The infrastructure needed to support such an idea grew exponentially as we discussed it. Seemingly insurmountable what if after what if made it seem like "we" would never see it. Trains carrying trailers in a multi-modal scenario is as far as it can go, we finally decided. As ANY system moves in on absolute 100% efficiency, the cost, complexity, reliability and safety become insurmountable obstacles to implementation. And ALL of it continues to make absolute dependence on very accurate GPS position a single point failure point. The "end of the world" would occur if something happened to the GPS constellation.

Modern day microelectronics and computer systems make such an idea more possible technically but not practically. Donald already said that.

We listened to the radio talking about how Netflix was going to raise their prices and notoriously "cheap" millennials were lining up to jump off of bridges over a few bucks. They can't afford $200K LSA's ... how are they gonna afford one packed with this sort of equipment?

Oh well ... ERAU scored another lucrative Government contract.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | January 16, 2019 7:42 AM    Report this comment

This ain't no Ercoupe. Ease of flying will take a back seat to cost of purchase.

Posted by: Jerry Fraser | January 16, 2019 8:28 AM    Report this comment

This is a bad premise all the way around.
-Making trainers "easier" will NOT develop piloting skills.
-Autonomous flight does not erase flight planning, preflight, or judgment (in fact, automation may even embolden people with poor skills to launch into weather beyond their skill level).
-Costs are NOT reduced by adding STC'd flight systems to existing training airframes.
-More stability needed for a C172? You're kidding, right?

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 16, 2019 8:40 AM    Report this comment

Thinking about it some more within the context of a problem I had trying to use a fuel credit card out of my area over the weekend ... technology AIN'T better. It just changes the flavor of the problems one incurs trying to do something. In the context of airplanes -- as regurgitated above -- what's the point?

As many have said and I have experienced myself (as a registered fossil), glass panels are OK for a graphical depiction of position relative to other points for any flight but when you start filling them up with hoardes of other information, info overload quickly takes over. So now I guess a system like this will allow me to spend more time with my head down in the cockpit trying to decipher all of it? Give me a break.

Over the summer, a couple of Army CH-47s showed up at my airport during a storm. I looked in one of 'em and saw steam gauges. The machine next to it was filled with computer screens and nary an instrument. The CO said he prefers the older machines. I would, too.

Beyond that, I fly airplanes for the sheer exhilaration of being 100% in control of the machine. It and myself -- figuratively -- become "one." I don't need no stinkin' MEMS device to keep it upright. If I wanna do that, I can buy a drone.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | January 16, 2019 9:23 AM    Report this comment

Okay, you engineer a fly by wire flight control assist module like the gas pedal on my 10 year old Chrysler 300C, and stuff it full of software that will adapt to any ham-handed person so that no one can over control or under-control the airplane. And you make it the size of a cigarette pack.

The question is ...what do you put this ACME Airplane Ham-Handed Auto Control in? Until we can figure out how to certify and build an airplane like a Revel Snap-Tite model, that has few parts, easy assembly reducing both the parts count and man-hour build time, we will always have quarter million dollar "cheap" airplanes. Until we can produce a power-plant that not only is reliable plus make use of modern technology we find on an average econobox, GA airplanes will always be unique, expensive, and require a strange mix of being able to maintain and repair a vintage tractor powered by a magneto yet guided by some fly-by-wire WAAS GPS gizmo, processor, or navigation system.

Ironically, showing a Navion with a speed cowl, landing gear down, being tested and guided by this fly-by-wire system is the perfect platform demonstrating the irony in all this. What a hoot! ERUA couldn't get a grant for a slick Lancair, they found a sliding canopy, large, robust, 75+ year old, excellent flying, super stable, not particularly efficient, vintage airplane as the proof of concept vehicle. That picture says more about all of the paradox in all this than all our words combined.

if we could certify and produce a 4 place airplane for the price of a 4x4 pick-up Biff and Muffy would probably entertain even today;s flight training regime. Add the ACME Airplane Ham-Handed Auto Control to that airplane and you could possibly have an improvement in aircraft sales....but never to the point of mass production numbers compared to a Ford Mustang.

We have an excellent ATC system yet it is maxed out with 6,000 airplanes in the air at any given time, mostly near the urban areas. Can you imagine adding 20,000 more Biff and Muffy Specials with ACME Airplane Ham-Handed Auto Control? Plus, throw in a few million drones flown by the iPhone staring while walking into a light pole crowd?

Like Larry pointed out, when you really examine the current infrastructure, unless that is developed parallel to, in this case, so-called autonomous or EZ flight, you can have the latest and greatest gizmo that cannot and will not work within the current system.

However, there are a few smiling folks that got a fat grant on the tax-payers dime to fly an old Navion around with a Chryler 300C gas pedal installed, all being towed by two Slick magnetos and an opposed, external push-rod, big inch Continental. Long live the mighty Navion, magnetos, mechanical fuel injection/carburetors, and GUMP checks...because there is little else different to stuff these new ideas into.

Posted by: Jim Holdeman | January 16, 2019 9:37 AM    Report this comment

Oh, the humanity?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 16, 2019 5:47 PM    Report this comment

So automation will substitute for training. OK, then logically all such aircraft will be required to include a ballistic whole-plane parachute in case of engine or automation failure, since we can't expect the pilot to handle the flight without the augmented controls.

Oh and we can't really realistically expect our fractionally trained pilot to figure out en-route weather, terrain, and airspace issues either, so again we must assume some third party (or more likely third party algorithm) will build and execute the flight plan.

So what exactly is the "pilot" for? If they want fully automated flight, then have a go at that. But a program to create pilots who can't control an actual airplane is a fundamentally bad idea.

Posted by: alex frakt | January 16, 2019 11:16 PM    Report this comment

At what point does this research morph into the totally autonomous flying vehicle so many other companies are working on?

Posted by: John McNamee | January 17, 2019 11:46 AM    Report this comment

The research is worthwhile. As a society, we've got to try things and experiment. Iterative experiments are faster at producing a result than analysis alone.

Thought experiment: Imagine if control surface deflections weren't limited mechanically by Va. In a crosswind landing, imagine if the into wind aileron didn't hit the stop, instead as the aircraft slowed it went most or all the way to vertical. What if all the other control surfaces were decoupled from current mechanical actuation systems and could enhance crosswind or directional control. Just think of the extra capability added to many aircraft. If stability was provided by software instead of aerodynamic design, utility (speed, range, useful load) & manufacturability could be optimized much more than today.

Putting untrained people in the cockpit to see how they figure it out is invaluable research. We all know that the physical skill of flying is easier to master than the decision-making that goes with being a great pilot. Who knows what this research will discover. Better ways to teach? Learning that enhances decision-making?

There's nothing I like more than flying solo in a J-3. Still I'd love to try a futuristic FBW General Aviation aircraft less constrained by the aerodynamic compromises of today's machines. I laud the EZ-FLY project.

Posted by: Serena Ryan | January 18, 2019 1:09 PM    Report this comment

"if control surface deflections weren't limited"

CONTROL is everything - Patty Wagstaff

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 18, 2019 9:47 PM    Report this comment

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