Dubious Idea Of The Week: Autonomous Skyhawk
When I read this week’s story about XWing’s idea of bolt-on technology to make, say, a Cessna 172 fully autonomous, I couldn’t shake the image of a 40-year-old N-model with cracked Royalite and moldy carpets puttering around aimlessly seeking four people who would actually agree to get into it. Think of it as the singularity improbably powered by Lycoming or that creepy V’Ger story in Star Trek, but with a vanity N-number.
To read XWing’s gauzy web copy is to be transported back to the first Popular Mechanics’ cover featuring flying cars—1906, evidently—and thinking, “oh yeah, that makes perfect sense. I believe that.” Because I’m a pilot—and you probably are too if you read this blog—I’m naturally predisposed to think poorly of an aviation business case that depends on selling 100,000 units a year by making pilots stars of some grand snuff film.
I think this not because I’m a dark, spinning vortex of cynicism, although I am, nor because I’ve been in aviation long enough to have seen too many dingbat, divorced-from-reality, delusional sky-castle new airplane ideas, although I have, nor because I’m just too intellectually stunted to have thought of it myself and, blessedly, that’s true, too. Nope, none of that.
I’m skeptical of this idea because it mentions autonomy and Cessna 172 in the same thought and second, powerful and sinister forces will see that it never happens. Think about it. In the bold new world of autonomy, AOPA would become AOA, only to be confused with instruments we will no longer need because only human pilots are stupid enough to require them. Mark Baker will never allow this.
But seriously, let’s unpack this. The kids are on to something by identifying pilots—or at least the onerous, expensive training necessary to become one—as a barrier to participation in aviation. Never mind that you got into aviation precisely because you wanted to become one, future humanoids will be engaged with the smartchip in their ears and will whistle up that robot Skyhawk whenever they want to see the houses get smaller. Or for whatever reason they want to abandon terra firma that isn’t flying.
In other words, you my friend, are a back-glancing dinosaur long overdue for replacement and if I take you for a little ride on the GA sales curve, you’ll concede that we haven’t done a smashing job of propagating our species. At this juncture, a just-graduated MBA would say airplane companies aren’t in the airplane business, they’re in the transportation business. And the smarmy little punk would be right, or soon will be.
All I wish to do is to pry the conceptual thrust of this technology away from believing that it usefully applies to a Skyhawk. Or any legacy design I can think of. We all love 172s, rightfully. But it’s a 62-year-old design, people. Fitting it with sentient autoflight is like putting warp drive in a 1965 Dodge Dart just because it might fit. Or even putting an electric motor in a 172. Oh, wait. Someone already did that.
This is another way of saying that XWing’s idea isn’t too bold, it’s not bold enough. Far better would be to leap past the high-drag, high-weight designs of the past and into the future with more structurally efficient designs with powerplants to match. XWing seems impressed with the efficiency of legacy airplanes as transportation machines, but a Lycoming running at a BSFC of 0.44 dragging a strutted design at 110 knots doesn’t wow me. A Skyhawk gets 15.8 MPG; Mooney’s aborted M10 trainer, with its diesel engine, would have gotten twice that. To be fair, let’s point out that XWing is using the Skyhawk as a placeholder in lieu of something that isn’t a multirotor. I'm focusing on it merely for comic relief. But still, at the volumes the company imagines—like 15 times what Cirrus has built, ever—there ought to be ROI to a future that isn't ... a Skyhawk.
As have others, XWing posits the chicken-egg scenario that eliminating the pilot requirement will drive up access and aircraft volume, driving prices down. Yes, but not with hard-to-manufacture Jurassic-age airframes. As a throw-out number, they mention 100,000 aircraft a year, arguing that such volume would translate to purchase prices as cheap as expensive cars.
Shockingly, that math pencils out.
The reason I think that’s true is because I’ve been comparing notes with Scott Taylor, who runs production at Vashon Aircraft. Several people have asked me what I see in the Vashon Ranger, which appears to be just another high-wing LSA. But as I pointed out in this video, Vashon is the first company I’ve seen to invest in and apply automated aircraft production at a modest scale, something we didn’t think possible not that long ago. Taylor says the company is within sight of trying automated riveting and welding. They’re dancing around matching the investment to the production economics. Advances in affordable, capable and flexible CNC machines make this possible in ways that weren't even five years ago.
Relying on such technology, the Ranger was designed for efficient manufacture in a way the Skyhawk was not. If Vashon succeeds, there’s no reason to assume these economics can’t be applied to a new generation of airplanes that … aren’t Skyhawks. Even at volumes far smaller than 100,000, Taylor thinks fixed-wing airplanes could sell in ranges not much north of high-end SUVs. Is the demand there to do that without ditching pilots in favor of autonomy? Or would lower prices gin up sales in a way we always hoped they would but never have? Egg, meet chicken. I can't see how much changes without a major paradigm shift of the sort that a marriage of autonomous flight and efficient manufacturing represent.
What we’re seeing here is a confluence of ideas all gelled around the notion that small aircraft are the answer to choked streets and urban congestion. In other words, the quaint idea of the $100 hamburger will, by and by, be displaced by app-driven, on-demand aircraft that whisk people who don’t care about flying for flying’s sake from A to B. Could be a multirotor, a VTOL or a fixed-wing airplane. XWing’s project merely provides the hardware for the platform and throws fixed wings into the mix. Such aircraft do have the advantage of more speed and range than multirotors, at least for the foreseeable future.
The autonomous control thing may be the easiest part. Recall that Diamond Aircraft was flying pilot-monitored autonomous flights three years ago. Others have been experimenting similarly. Driving the daunting regulatory wall is the difficult task of reliable sense-and-avoid. This is still work in progress and the solutions will emerge from the drone segment, as will how ATC--or AI--will deconflict supposed swarms of flying machines. I actually don’t think the swarms will materialize. Some demand will be there, I’ll wager, but it's vastly overestimated because Uber believes its car rider data translates to urban flight demand. And also because anyone involved in aviation projects has to sign a contract obligating them to inflate expected demand tenfold over what they expect is real demand. Tell me I’m wrong.
Also, tell me if you’d like an autonomous autopilot for your airplane. But please don’t tell me it’s a Skyhawk.