The Lure Of The Cheap Autopilot

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Anyone who transcends beyond casual skepticism understands that to be truly blackhearted is to know that cynicism is the smoke that curls up from burned dreams. Personally, I’ve embraced it, with a list of failings and character flaws so numerous that I need an Excel spreadsheet just to list them.

But one thing I am not is a Kool-Aid drinker. Oddly, my Catholic school upbringing saw to that; I perfected the eye roll by fifth grade. So five years ago, when the FAA was describing the coming wave of streamlined certification as “twice the safety at half the cost,” my BS detector went off-scale high. Lately, it’s come off the peg, but just barely.

Are we there yet? With regard to avionics, at least, we can measure the cost part. Let’s focus on autopilots, specifically the TruTrak Vizion system at an eye-opening $5000 that Andrew Barker talks about in this video we shot at AEA in Last Vegas this week. And that’s no stripped-down wing leveler either, but a full-featured autoflight system with envelope protection.

A decade ago, the least expensive autopilot installations were in the $15,000 range, if not a lot more. Even today, as TruTrak, Garmin and Trio offer capable autopilots for five grand, the Genesys System 30, the old rate-based S-TEC bargain AP, lists for $13,000. So we’ve hit the half-the-cost claim and then some.

Now the safety part. Generously, this is a rubbery concept. What’s “twice the safety?” My working definition would be a halving of the general aviation fatal accident rate. Despite the rosy motto, the FAA’s stated goal was to reduce the accident rate by 10 percent over a 10-year period between 2009 and 2018.

Confronting the data fairly, total accidents and likely the fatal rate have declined sharply during this period. In 2009, the fatal rate was 1.33/100,000 hours compared to 0.98/100,000 in 2016, according to NTSB data. The FAA claims a bigger drop, but I’ll stick with the NTSB data for the moment and to be fair, it exceeds the FAA goal anyway.

What happened? A combination of factors related to improvements in training, an aggressive attempt to teach risk mitigation, better maintenance management and perhaps some impact from more sophisticated avionics, mainly glass panels and autopilots, although a 2010 NTSB study on this very topic found no safety impact from the glass evolution. Eight years hence, perhaps the effect is more measurable. And I wouldn’t discount the impact Cirrus has had on the whole in reducing its own accident rate dramatically.

And that gets us back to affordable autopilots with envelope protection. Despite all the training and risk awareness, the big killers in GA remain loss of control and stalls. Because we can’t interview dead people, the reasons for LOC accidents are poorly understood, so the operative theory is that smart autopilots can intervene frequently enough to nudge the fatal accident needle downward. It did not escape me that Garmin’s new GFC 600H autopilot for helicopters has a hover assist mode, perhaps to help the ham-fisted helo driver avoid trimming trees with the tail rotor.

Certainly, in onesies and twosies, that ought to move the accident rate downward, right? It probably can’t hurt, but I’m skeptical that this technology will have measureable impact at this point. 

As long as he’s in the loop, homo the sap is ever creative in digging smoking holes by defeating the very systems he invented to keep him from doing so. There’s no line of code in an autopilot that’s the equivalent of “Hey, watch this.”

What we’re missing here in the forest-for-the-trees wonder over impressive autopilots is that we’re well past the dawn of a sea change that’s marching smartly toward autonomous flight. You can’t help but notice all the coverage we’ve been doing on drones and automated flying machines that will whisk passengers from A to B at the press of an app option. Envelope protection is but a mere momentary stop on that road and, being a little harsh here perhaps, it’s already obsolete. We just haven’t realized it yet.

I’ve been doubtful of the timing and remain so, but the outlines are unmistakable. Line 266 of my spreadsheet catalog of character flaws is the inability to predict the future. But I’ll hazard a prediction anyway. The coming GA bifurcation will be between pilots for whom coping with the prospect of a fiery death is the appeal of flying and those who just want to fly to South Bend for Christmas; those who lust for the feel of the stick and those who admire turn anticipation of a perfect radius drawn on a vivid TFT.

In the not-too-distant future, someone will be blogging about how control laws should be written to balance the pilot’s genetic urge to intervene against the wisdom of preventing him from doing so.

Welcome to the revolution.

Comments (27)

Damn, you write well. I envy your writing skills in spite of your flawed character.

Posted by: JOHN EWALD | March 28, 2018 9:29 AM    Report this comment

You've outdone yourself again ... "The coming GA bifurcation will be between pilots for whom coping with the prospect of a fiery death is the appeal of flying and those who just want to fly to South Bend for Christmas."

My wife once asked me if I'm ever afraid when I go flying. My instant answer, "No!" Besides ... it won't hurt for long. And being a part of the control loop trying to keep blood in my noodle while pulling 'G's' is intoxicating for most older pilots. THIS pilot will likely never sit in an autonomous airplane OR fly an electric airplane more than once. Doing my part to deplete the earth's hydrocarbon reserves is one of my life's goals. I'll let the youngsters worry about global warming. But now you've likely got Yars either foaming at the mouth OR having a myocardial infarction. :-)

Your Kool-Aid comment touched on one of my MAJOR pet peeves with the FAR Part 23 rewrite which the Administrator, et al, are still patting themselves on the back over. Appendix G.4 of the Aviation Rulemaking Committee's final recommendations to the FAA starts out with, "Background: The FAA/GAMA Small AIrcraft ARC has been tasked with doubling aircraft safety while at the same time reducing certification costs by half." Their "Recommendation: Create a Primary Non-Commercial Category Under 14 CFR Part 21." Essentially, owner flown certificated airplanes flown recreationally could be relicensed in that new category and maintained and operated much like the E-AB class. I URGE all readers here to look this report up and check it out. We've barely scratched the surface of what COULD be ... but isn't. The nearly 50 person ARC worked for five years on that document (sic) and all we got was this lousy autopilot !

It's time for the FAA to act faster. All of us "stick actuators" here who want to die a fiery death will be gone by the time they do something. I don't give a hoot about going to my final resting place in an autonomous hearse !

Posted by: Larry Stencel | March 28, 2018 9:30 AM    Report this comment

Larry, I think you are on to the next big money maker. The autonomous hearse. Just think, it can come to pick up the worldly remains of the customer, transport them to the viewing site, then off to the interment site or perform the ash disposal. One could pre buy the services from say Darth Uber and have the smart phone app check vitals of the customer. No vitals Darth is on the way.

The nice thing is that you do not have to worry about a deadly crash should the folks in India writing the control code miss a line because well, you are already deceased. You are on to something with great financial promise.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | March 28, 2018 11:16 AM    Report this comment

"Anyone who transcends beyond casual skepticism understands that to be truly blackhearted is to know that cynicism is the smoke that curls up from burned dreams."

Best opening yet.

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | March 28, 2018 12:04 PM    Report this comment

You made my day, Leo, Thanks! ... I'm off to the patent office ASAP :-))))
Maybe I can make enough to buy a Cirrus Jet before I start wearing bibbs and diapers?
Let's get cracking on a catchy name for this service, boys.

SAAAY ... how's about this corollary idea. An App like that one that does heart monitoring would be installed on the yoke. You'd tell the new low cost autopilot that you're one soul onboard and IF you expire in flight, the jet goes into funeral mode (a pink button if you want to start a bit early and enjoy the ride) and takes you to a place where it makes one hell of a scene but can't harm anyone else. Why wait for an autonomous hearse? It's an instant gratification world don't ya know ...

Now we've gone and done it ... created another dot-com Billionaire ...

Posted by: Larry Stencel | March 28, 2018 12:43 PM    Report this comment

Fantastic writing by Paul--Leo's sarcasm--the snark by John Ewald--and Larry's creative take-I LOVE THIS SITE!

Posted by: jim hanson | March 28, 2018 2:59 PM    Report this comment

Oh, heavenly day! The choir has seen the light. ;-)

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | March 28, 2018 4:02 PM    Report this comment

Hey HEY Yars ... don't go feelin' TOO stud ... I ain't gettin' on no autonomous aeroplane until I no longer need O2 and my EKG looks like a ruler. Unless, of course, I decide I'm on my way out anyhow and decide to take the ultimate E ticket ride and push the 'pink' button on the new low cost autopilot a bit early. :-)

Jim ... I was outside doing battle with oak tree leaves all day and laughing about the whole thing. You have no idea how much I enjoy this site, too. It's wonderful !! Almost as much fun as ... well ... flying.

PB starts it with his writing and the rest of us are then off and running ... don't get no better'n that.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | March 28, 2018 9:20 PM    Report this comment

Ditto Larry.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 28, 2018 9:38 PM    Report this comment

Paul, you touched upon the same debate that's occuring in the automotive world. Driving enthusiasts fear that the coming wave of autonomous vehicles will take away the steering wheel from everyone. And it could happen simply through insurance premiums. If the accident rate for autonomous vehicles does drop precipitously, then those wishing to drive a "manual" (steering wheel, not just a stick) may have to pay MUCH more because of the higher risk of an accident. This would effectively 'ban' manual cars with a steering wheel by making it unaffordable, without need for additional legislation.

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | March 29, 2018 5:44 AM    Report this comment

"Because we can't interview dead people, the reasons for LOC accidents are poorly understood, "

I disagree Paul. The reasons for LOC are well understood and there really is no good reason to interview dead people. LOC is just that, LOC. What else is there to understand. LOC only happens when you're near the ground otherwise an LOC event could not happen. The ground defines the LOC event. LOC is always when the airplane stops flying and ends when it meets the ground. All discussion revolving around LOC as far as I can see revolves around the understanding that the outcome is not good and ends meeting the ground. LOC cannot occur if you are not close to the ground and the airplane is still flying. It just can't. Think about it. So what's not to understand? Am I making myself clear?

As far as avionics are concerned, glass has done nothing but present the pilot with more and more information in a smaller package very quickly at a time when it is most needed. The pilot still has to sift through all of the information and decide what is relevant and what is not at a specific point in time. What is relevant at 10,000' msl is different than what is relevant at lets say 1,000' msl unless of course you're at KLXV, then you have LOC. What really changed the landscape is when "envelope protection" was introduced. This was a game changer. When first introduced appeared as just a normal evolution of safety in aircraft, it was not.

Envelope protection took the decision making process away from the pilot and gave it to the computer. All envelope protection is, is a stepping stone (although a big stepping stone) to full autonomous flight. Prior to EP a pilot still had to think and decide. EP is now chipping away at that. Eventually, pilots (if you still want to call them that) won't have to think anymore. Just put in (probably voiced initiated) location, destination and that will be it. Sit back, take a nap, pop open a beer and relax until you reach your destination, or, maybe have a LOC (Tesla) event. I doubt it will be long until Cirrus takes away the pilot's decision to pop the chute and gives it to the computer. Why not? It seems to me it would do a lot for liability insurance. Think about it, the sky's will look like D-Day. There will be Cirrus aircraft everywhere. What a great way to introduce people to aviation. The sky's will be raining Cirrus. When EP was introduced everything changed. Prior to EP there were pilots and still are depending on what you fly. EP has changed the pilot to an aviation technician.

By the way Paul, this article has got to be up there with the best you have ever written. Nice job. Fun reading. Fun responses.

Posted by: Tom Cooke | March 29, 2018 5:48 AM    Report this comment

Bravo Paul, I'm not a pilot (but I do like flying and aviation) and I subscribe to this and Aviation Consumer just to read your writing!

On top of that I'm treated with the comments made by other readers! In particular, I liked Thomas Cooke's lines, "Think about it, the sky's will look like D-Day. There will be Cirrus aircraft everywhere. What a great way to introduce people to aviation."

Posted by: Richard Katz | March 29, 2018 7:33 AM    Report this comment

Lately, almost every discussion about autopilots includes mention of "envelope protection" and "level buttons." The former can be implemented with or without fly-by-wire technology, but true envelope protection implicitly includes/requires full-time operation and concomitant reliability. It's a fertile topic - too detailed for this space. But it's less about autonomy than it is about electronically-limited authority.

"Level buttons" are another beast, altogether. They're the machine equivalent of an overloaded student telling her flight instructor "you've got it!" (And fully expecting an instantaneous rescue.)
Autonomy isn't about the level of skill or precision of some autopilot. Autonomy quite simply is about who (or what) is "in charge." Pressing that little blue button is a cede of that authority - if only for some limited interval. Now, what does it take for someTHING to be "in charge?" A lot less than you might think, but again, a fertile topic that's too detailed for this space.

Splendid writing, Paul. I, too, enjoy the shared thoughts of the commentariat.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | March 29, 2018 9:34 AM    Report this comment

"LOC is always when the airplane stops flying and ends when it meets the ground."

That's not necessarily true. "Severe" and "extreme" turbulence by definition mean that the aircraft is out of control (for however limited a period), which would be LOC. An inadvertent stall is also LOC. Neither example by themselves mean hitting the ground (though they very well might). A LOC accident, on the other hand, does end with hitting the ground, but then again all accidents eventually end with hitting the ground.

"LOC is just that, LOC. What else is there to understand. "

The "what else" is "why did the pilot lose control". Why are pilots getting into base-to-final stall/spin accidents, or stalling on takeoff, or spiraling to the ground in otherwise perfectly flyable aircraft.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | March 29, 2018 9:50 AM    Report this comment

"Why are pilots getting into base-to-final stall/spin accidents, or stalling on takeoff, or spiraling to the ground in otherwise perfectly flyable aircraft."

Because they're going to slow. What else is there to understand. This whole LOC thing is being way over thought. It's not that complicated. Don't go below a certain predetermined airspeed (depending on what you fly) and you will be ok. If you do, your chances of LOC increase dramatically. Keep it simple.

Posted by: Tom Cooke | March 29, 2018 10:31 AM    Report this comment

Food fight!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 29, 2018 11:14 AM    Report this comment

"Because they're going to slow. What else is there to understand. This whole LOC thing is being way over thought."

More to it than that, Thomas. Stalls are just part of it. Pilots looe control on perfectly sunny days and make smoking craters that weren't caused by stalls; they lose it in clouds, too. They lose it for no apparent reason. And for those who do stall, the guys who lose it in accelerated stalls aren't going too slow. And on and on...

And why do some pilots stall or lose control and others never will? Is is something in their DNA? Their training? Their currency? We don't know these things.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 29, 2018 11:26 AM    Report this comment

After 47 years of aviating and 33 years of owning my C172, I nearly met MY fiery end last November ON the ground during rollout. The first time I've come that close to disaster -- ever.

It was a really blustery afternoon with no good runway heading to deal with it. I added some speed on final to compensate but once on the ground, the thing started weathervaning severely. I tried to deal with it but the narrow runway didn't allow much and ailerons didn't help so ... I poured the coals to it and got away from the ground. Coming around to land on a grass runway which also wasn't well aligned, I was having a problem holding the centerline. Then I thought about the lack of friction on grass v. asphalt. At the last minute, I made an impetuous move which I will NEVER do again ... I elected to land on a taxiway (we do that where I hang ... it's a way to deal with such crosswinds) but was too high. That taxiway isn't very long but I attempted a last minute heading change and landing v. going around again and coming in lower. I can tell you two things. The brakes on a C172 work REAL good when mashed to the firewall AND I could squash a ball bearing with my sphincter under such conditions. In the end, all ended well. I'm sure I'm not the only one who could confess to such a situation? The airplane was reusable.

My point ... even the best of us (and I ain't one of 'em) have bad days. It's the insidious "fiery" nature of aviating. Why this incessant preoccupation with LOC befuddles me. You know what happens sometimes.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | March 29, 2018 12:43 PM    Report this comment

"My point ... even the best of us (and I ain't one of 'em) have bad days. It's the insidious "fiery" nature of aviating. Why this incessant preoccupation with LOC befuddles me. You know what happens sometimes."

Exactly. That is the point I was trying to make. I guess I didn't do that very well. Thank you Larry.

Posted by: Tom Cooke | March 29, 2018 7:33 PM    Report this comment

In the AvWeb Flash email, it takes you to the page with all of the flash articles on a single page. Please consider adding a link in those post titles to take you to these single page articles so they can be more easily saved in Instapaper and Pocket. I want to bookmark more of your writing and this would make it easier :-)

Posted by: Michael Doornbos | March 30, 2018 7:47 AM    Report this comment

On LOC. Emphasize awareness and training at high and low altitudes. A good thing! Gotta keep reminding, young and old, of the "fiery" things in aviation.

On the latest and the greatest Av-tech stuff. Too many boxes, too many buttons and way too many functions all resulting in too many heads inside the cockpit.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 30, 2018 9:59 AM    Report this comment

Rafael, that's the point of the autopilots, EFIS and tracking evolution.

Take the controls, buttons and decisions away from the pilot and give them to the computer gods. The future "Pilot" will not need the skills and knowledge of pilots over the first 130 years of Aviation.

Future pilots will be trained to monitor and reset flight management systems. You know...?, like video games.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | March 30, 2018 10:41 AM    Report this comment

Klaus, like aircraft system and aerodynamic energy managers? Similarly to AF447?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 30, 2018 11:21 AM    Report this comment

The researchers, developers and engineers deserve a lot of credit for preventing that scenario from taking place ever again. Everyone who has any part in an accident feels their piece of responsibility and want to do their part to prevent it's recurrence.

We all ask "what could've I done to prevent that accident?". Autonomous vehicles is the answer the great developers and engineers have come up with. An example: the moving map GPS save many lives including mine.

Taking the controls out of a pilots hands is quite the insult to those of us who have studied and trained countless hours. Look around folks... We're a dieing breed. The younger generation don't want to participate in the countless hours of study and training only to be playing the odds. They hear the news reports of every aircraft incident and the conversations we have. Pilots are their own worst enemies, you put us in a group like this and we discuss accidents. If we aren't discussing accidents then we start in on how great we are and should be paid ten times as much.

Aviation is not going away, it's evolving. The human sitting in the seat looking at instruments is one small part of the whole. Many people have developed incredible improvements to get us where we are today. These very smart folks behind the scenes haven't quite, they're just warming up.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | March 31, 2018 12:13 PM    Report this comment

"Taking the controls out of a pilots hands is quite the insult to those of us who have studied and trained countless hours."

If there were an actual TAKING, I would see your point. But the existence - even the predominance - of autonomous aircraft will not take away one's freedom to aviate manually (and to kill onesself and others while doing so).

Autonomous aircraft WILL open the world of personal aviation to a huge population of people who never would (or no longer can) avail themselves of manual participation. Without much of the current risk.

That's no insult. That's progress.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | March 31, 2018 4:38 PM    Report this comment

"Autonomous aircraft WILL open the world of personal aviation to a huge population of people who never would (or no longer can) avail themselves of manual participation."

You're right YARS, it will open it up to the masses. However, they will never experience what we have experienced and can never claim to. I do not view it as a gain, I view it as a loss. I like to be in control of my life, always. I cannot think of anything more boring than autonomous flight. It's kind of like eating a veggie burger and washing it down with bottled water. Yum, that was good. It's nothing more than giving up more and more of our lives to someone else because we are to incompetent to make our own decisions and live with the consequences. I'm glad I'm old and getting older by the day.

Posted by: Tom Cooke | April 1, 2018 3:46 AM    Report this comment

LOC is just the first step in CFIT! Maybe controlled the microsecond before impact but who's splitting hairs!

Posted by: Dave Spurlock | June 12, 2018 1:14 AM    Report this comment

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