Dubious Idea Of The Week: Autonomous Skyhawk

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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.

Comments (19)

"I'm a dark, spinning vortex of cynicism"

" .. dingbat, divorced-from-reality, delusional sky-castle new airplane ideas, ..."

" ... sentient autoflight ... "


YARS please.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 8, 2018 8:30 AM    Report this comment

Without disagreeing with any of Paul's points, I'll offer two (three?) of my own:

1. A properly-designed autonomous control system would be installable in anything from a DJI to an A-380. In fact, you could remove "the box" from a DJI; install it in an A-380; and go fly.

2. When I first read the piece about the autonomous Skyhawk, I (mistakenly?) presumed that the strategy was to refit existing light-GA birds with "a box." Not to build new Skyhawks.

3? I've been debating (and have solicited opinions) whether to author and submit a guest blog piece, the purposes of which would be to define/explain autonomous control systems, and to point out how an aircraft "box" would have almost nothing in common with any existing "autopilot."

In light of today's excellent blog, and the news item it references, that debate continues here in the People's Republik...

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | August 8, 2018 9:41 AM    Report this comment

I resemble these remarks. I am the proud owner of a 172 Hawk of the Sky, my Royalite is as shiny as ever and my carpets are crisp, no mold detected.

Why can't I have a robot, so that I can take the back seat and read newspapers? And why can robots not enjoy flying my steam gauges and an occasional ADF approach? This article is discriminatory to both aircraft and robots!

Posted by: Richard Brink | August 8, 2018 10:44 AM    Report this comment

Notwithstanding the numerous "I'd never fly in"s" still being expressed, it is becoming clear a variety of autonomous transportation will eventually arrive. Eventually. So we're really just discussing viability of application, and I too am not immediately sold on the notion of automating a fixed-wing, airport-requiring vehicle that would, presumably, be used for interurban transport.

More stimulating is mentally walking further down the Vashon pathway toward the goal of fully automated production, something approaching that sci-fi staple, the box which ingests raw material and spits out....whatever.

Obviously, it would be silly to attempt full automation of the process of building a riveted aluminum Skyhawk with all it's elaborate assemblage of bits & pieces. On the other hand, it's no longer a total trip into fantasy-land to envision a general-purpose production line that employed some sort of large, advanced versions of the 3-D printer and could produce a limited run of Skyhawk-like analogues, then virtually overnight be re-tasked to make something totally different. Even immense initial capital expense becomes practical when amortized against enough salable product.

You kids get busy on that, OK? And hurry, I want to see it.

Posted by: John Wilson | August 8, 2018 5:19 PM    Report this comment

Since I'm in the 172 charter business, here's my two cents:

The days of certified fixed wing production under 12,500 is over. The future of small fixed wing aircraft is homebuilt and a hand full of LSA models.

The future that is already happening is the Bell 206 / Hughes 500 / Robinson R-66 type aircraft going full autonomous. The aircraft are already certified have lots of power and don't need expensive airport property to operate off of.

Look at the GAMA manufacturers reports each year. Helicopters are picking up in production and General Aviation fixed wing has been less than flat for decades. Vans Aircraft and Cub Crafters are on the move because they have the best options at the best prices. Helicopter charter companies are growing and expanding. Helicopters are moving commuters 200 miles at a price the customer is willing to pay.

Autonomous 172...? it would be much cheaper but, not very practical. The runways are not close enough to destinations. Ground transportation defeats the purpose for flying to your desired destination. "Time Is Money!".

Posted by: Klaus Marx | August 8, 2018 9:09 PM    Report this comment

"The days of certified fixed wing production under 12,500 is over. "

I think Cirrus would disagree. The day of affordable (under $150k) certified fixed wing production under 12,500 is certainly over, though, and has been for many years.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | August 9, 2018 9:28 AM    Report this comment

Having taken delivery of a Tesla Model 3 recently I can say with confidence I am not ready to let this or any autonomous vehicle deliver me to my next destination. I watch as the Tesla gets completely confused on non-standard intersections or suddenly says "Huh" when rains obscures it's optic sensors. Sorry, we just aren't there yet so adding a third dimension to the decision making process doesn't seem like a smart bet to me. Maybe someday.....

Posted by: Steven Morton | August 9, 2018 10:29 AM    Report this comment

Under $150k? Hmmnnn.... $50k for an engine; $20k for a Dynon panel; $10k for the now-obligatory whole-vehicle parachute... doesn't leave much for plastic and leather.

Maybe Paul can ask some movers and (stick?) shakers whether they've considered using rotationally-molded glass-filled Nylon for primary structures. A one-piece wing with in-situ-insert-molded extruded-aluminum spars would be VERY inexpensive to manufacture. Ibid a true one-piece fuselage with insert-molded frameouts and attach-point hardware. Just thinkin'....

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | August 9, 2018 10:41 AM    Report this comment

YARS, if you are soliciting feedback on whether to author a blog on autonomous flight, count me as a "yes" vote. I'm an engineer of the chemical persuasion. So, my understanding of electrons is their part in the combustion process that makes our engines go 'round, and not how they zip through metal wires to guide us to our destinations. In my simple non-electronic world it seems the autopilot is the interface between the autonomous black box and the control surfaces. The box tells the AP where to go and the AP responds. Yes, you would also need to tie it to the engine, but on a 172 that's one more servo. So, educate me. :-)

Posted by: John McNamee | August 9, 2018 11:39 AM    Report this comment

I'd GO for the idea if they modified the C172 to have a separate passenger pod which one could drive to the airport and the Skyhawk'd pick you up and whisk you to hither and yon. IF the production numbers didn't go up to the projected 100K/year, maybe they could have fractional ownership of such machines ala Icon? This would drive the price of used Skyhawks up and -- after 34 years -- I could sell mine for a tidy profit!!

OH! I forgot. Erik Lindberg briefed us about his latest and greatest idea ... urban people moving Uber taxicabs. XWing is a day late and a few bucks short.

I am now firmly convinced that you have to be playing with FAR less than a full deck to come up with such ideas.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | August 9, 2018 12:30 PM    Report this comment

Tom, your question has already been answered. Sort of. Beechcraft pioneered the fiber wound fuselage in the Premier, Honda is used advanced composites in the HondaJet and even Boeing in the 787. It's unclear if these technologies represent a reset or even an advantage in manufacturing cost.

They require huge investments and everyone who has worked with both composites and aluminum says that the former don't scale well because throughput is a problem. Eclipse found this with friction stir welding, you might recall.

There may be new advanced molding ideas out there that companies could experiment with. I suspect if they yield to automation and high throughput, they'll have appeal if someone has the guts to make the investment. This is why Vashon will be interesting to watch. Will potential profits follow the investment?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 9, 2018 3:22 PM    Report this comment


Posted by: Jim Holdeman | August 9, 2018 4:10 PM    Report this comment

As you know, I'm a big fan of mandrel-wound composite structures. But I'm unaware of any efforts to employ rotational molding in fabricating any primary structures. Have you heard about any?

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | August 9, 2018 4:22 PM    Report this comment

What a great article and so well said. Your conclusions are correct. And such descriptive language to boot! What a hoot!

I am a gearhead besides a pilot. I think hi-performance cars are pretty cool and satisfying to drive. So, some of my driving is for the sheer pleasure of accelerating thru the gears, enjoying the scenery with 2 windows down. Listening to V8 with a lumpy cam idling at a traffic light sends me the same sensation as a T-28 taxis by at Oshkosh or a solid lifter Panhead at a breakfast run.

However, for most people, a car is for pure transportation from point A to point B. There is no emotional attachment to the transportation experience. It's just a way to get there. The journey actually gets in the way of the destination.

Now we have the technology to "drive" a pilot-less 172, a tilt-rotor, or some sort of V-TOL which implies that no matter the swirling vortex's of winds around tall buildings, trees, power-lines, light poles, signage, tornados/hail/hurricane/rain/snow/shine...we can vertically lift and horizontally transport the masses who have no attachment to the experience of flight other than it better be reliable, comfortable, affordable, and shelter me as much as possible from the experience.

Technology cannot bridge the gap between flying practicality and the reality of the atmosphere. Airliners are as close as we've gotten to that end. Most of us know they are not really comfortable nor without risk, nor without major inconvenience, nor autonomous. At this point we not even close to all weather capability that has been predicted for the last 50 years. And just when we think we have an accident jerks us back into reality.

And 100,000 production numbers? We would have to have another World War rivaling the production of the "greatest generation" to see those numbers again.

So, we in GA, are at war with ourselves when we try to portray the possibility of an airplane in every garage, aerial conveyances as a mass form of urban public transportation, anyone can do it, and everyone can participate in it. Yes, anyone with drive, fortitude, dedication to training, who enjoys the challenge of learning a new skill set, who thinks the journey is as important as the destination, and is willing to invest in these skills over and over again to maintain a safe level of proficiency...can do it. Indeed, some people who lack all that climb into an aluminum tube with hundreds of others behind those with the drive to become pilots. But not the masses.

So the question is regarding aerial urban mass transit, is that the mindset and goals of the masses? No. If that was true far more folks would be driving to their hangar in preparation for that flight to personal destinations on Saturday morning, in their Cub, 172, or T-28 to be around family or like-minded people, or simply to be up there.

Posted by: Jim Holdeman | August 9, 2018 4:25 PM    Report this comment

On the contrary, there's a very good reason to automate a 172, in my opinion: it's not any fun to fly.

We do not all love Cessna 172s. I know this because a flight instructor recently admitted his secret shame to me: he hates flying the 172. I brightened his day: I dislike the airplane too. Here's how I feel about the 172. I feel claustrophobic just trying to find a way to buckle in if there's someone in the other seat. I feel blind, because when sitting in the left front seat I can barely see forward, cannot see to the left at all, see very little to the right, can't see up, and have no prayer of seeing in the direction of turn. Flying the airplane in high-traffic areas scares me, because I can't see. The lack of roll response frightens me, in gusty conditions. And for all that, I know the airplane won't climb as well as an LSA, and will just about beat one in cruise.
Sure, it's a great airplane for a ham-fisted weekend pilot like me, to make decent landings in - and it will absorb the hit when the landing isn't so decent. And that's a very practical advantage, especially for a flight school.
But, there's a saying that any airplane I happen to be flying is a great airplane. For me, I honestly can't say that about the 172. If it were the only airplane available, I might just pass. And I might just be happy to turn it over to George (or Otto).

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | August 10, 2018 8:00 AM    Report this comment

Jim ... EXCELLENT position. I concur.

I don't know what percentage of GA flight is cutting holes in the sky or procuring $100 hamburgers vs. actually transporting oneself from A to B for a reason but I'd bet it's well above 50%. In those situations where getting someplace vs just enjoying aviating, if you then factor out the situations where they choose to fly because they enjoy it and it makes little practical sense over other ways of moving oneself, the numbers likely go higher. Aviating can be an addictive and mesmerizing endeavor. I, too, want to be "up there."

As to the miserable failings of the C172 ... that must be the reason about 1 in 10 GA airplanes ever built is a Skyhawk. I just had to make a decision on which of my two airplanes had to go because I needed more room in my hangar. The Skyhawk is still there and the PA28 isn't. To be fair ... each airplane has plusses and minuses ... the C172 has more of 'em ... hence why more of them sold since 1956 by a factor of about four.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | August 10, 2018 10:46 AM    Report this comment

"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. "

Forget the debate about autonomous aircraft--read Paul's piece for the way he constructs his comments--it sounds like Hedley Lamar in Blazing Saddles! "My mind is raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives." I love reading Paul's blogs, just for their "creative alternatives" and style of writing.

Lest Paul get a swelled head, consider the retort by actor Slim Pickens--"Dang, Mr. Taggert, if you don't use your tongue better'n a $20 (bleep)!

Posted by: jim hanson | August 10, 2018 11:53 AM    Report this comment

Paul: I've written a recent article on this subject on my website: tekavionics
Since URL's are not allowed, it's an https site with .com at the end.
There are 2 files under the photo; one for the text portion and one for the PowerPoint portion. Just click on each one to bring them up.
Stephen B. Miller

Posted by: Stephen Miller | August 10, 2018 2:24 PM    Report this comment

You can post url, but not links. Just strip of the hypertext, thus


Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 10, 2018 3:29 PM    Report this comment

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