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Diamond Aircraft, flying a DA42 twin, has completed a series of fully autonomous flight tests culminating in several landings without any input from human pilots. The tests used a new fly-by-wire system Diamond has been developing for light aircraft and were completed at Diamond’s Wiener Neustadt headquarters in Austria. The trials may lead to fielding of the system within a few years, according to Diamond CEO Christian Dries. Initially, he said, such a system would be sold as a backup safety device, but ultimately it could allow commercial commuter aircraft that now require two pilots to fly with just one.

As we’ve reported previously, Diamond has been developing a fly-by-wire system for light aircraft since about 2012. The autonomous flight tests are part of that project, with the autoland system as an offshoot. Diamond has also been involved in development of autonomous aircraft, including a completely autonomous helicopter. In its current testbed form, the DA42 is fully automatic, including autothrottles, flap and gear controls and, eventually, even automatic braking. Navigation is done via GPS and, for approach, a radar and laser altimeter system augments the GPS.

“The airplane landed exactly on the centerline and this without any ground guidance. No ILS, no differential GPS or anything related to that. Just the airplane alone,” Dries told us in an interview last week. “The important thing is the airplane was able to land on an uncontrolled airfield without any ground support,” Dries added.

Although the project is known internally as the “electronic parachute,” Dries said it probably won’t be marketed under that name. Diamond’s aim is to certify the system for its aircraft as a backup safety system. When might it be available? “That’s a difficult question,” Dries said. “It depends on the authorities,” he added. One sticking point is that electronic systems are generally certified to a reliability of 10-9, an expensive undertaking for a low-volume system. Dries hopes regulators can be talked into a 10-6 certification level. “If you have it, it may save you. If you don’t have it, you’re dead anyhow,” Dries said, in explaining the logic of lower cert level for the backup system.

As for cost, that’s an unknown, Dries said. His target number is about 10 percent of the aircraft price, but the final number will depend on potential volume. Another factor is whether Garmin allows software-level access to its GFC700 autopilot servos. If not, Dries said, Diamond will have to develop its own.

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Members of the Senate and the House returned to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday after their August recess, to face an imminent deadline to deal with funding the FAA. The current FAA funding bill expires on Sept. 30. Industry advocates are hoping there won’t be a series of temporary extensions and shutdowns like in 2011, when the last funding bill was up for approval. The aviation bill may be put on hold at least temporarily, however. “The [highway] bill seems to be sucking all of the oxygen out of the room and that could mean more delays for aviation,” Erik Hansen, a spokesman for the U.S. Travel Association, told The Hill. “There’s a packed floor schedule [for the fall], and getting a bill through committees and both chambers and through a conference could be difficult.”†

Also in the mix is a proposal from Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Penn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to separate the air traffic control system from the FAA and create an independent corporation, funded by user fees, to oversee it. Aviation advocates have lobbied against this plan, saying the current fuel-tax system fairly and equitably pays for the system. Hopes are dim among most analysts that a new FAA bill will be passed by the deadline. Congress is scheduled to meet only 12 days in September, and the agenda is over-booked with contentious issues, including the highway bill, immigration, cyber-security and the Iran nuclear agreement.

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Two passengers suffered minor injuries after a British Airways aircraft caught fire at Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport on Wednesday. The flight crew aborted the takeoff after the left engine apparently caught fire. The 159 passengers and 13 crew on the Boeing 777 evacuated on the runway using the slides. The aircraft was taking off for Gatwick Airport about 4 p.m. local time when the incident occurred.

The aircraft appears to have been heavily damaged by the fire and the runway was closed. Operations continued on three other runways. The two injured passengers were taken to the hospital but they were not believed to be seriously hurt.


The two pilots and five passengers aboard a chartered Wheels Up Citation Excel XLS had some anxious moments when the main cabin door opened in flight but didn't detach from the aircraft. The aircraft had just taken off from San Francisco International Airport on Aug. 6 for a flight to Drummond Island Airport in Michigan and was climbing through 2,000 feet when the door opened. The air traffic control dialogue (edited by YouTube channel VASAviation) reveals the open door prevented the business jet from climbing and the pilot needed both hands to maintain control of the aircraft as he declares an emergency and asks to return to the airport. "I gotta hold the aircraft. We cannot climb...," the pilot tells the controller as he asks for vectors and frequencies to make an instrument approach.

A short time later the aircraft came out of the clouds and the crew was able to make a visual approach. As the Citation turned base, a controller reported it only had one main landing gear but it turned out he mistook the hanging door for a gear leg. The gear worked normally and the crew made a safe landing on Runway 28R with emergency apparatus standing by. The occupants evacuated the airplane on a taxiway. Wheels Up is a relatively new charter company that intends to build most of its business around a large fleet of King Airs but it started flying Citations in 2014.

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The science team aboard Nautilus, a research vessel operated by the Ocean Exploration Trust, recently explored the wreckage of the USS Macon, an aircraft-carrier dirigible operated by the U.S. Navy that crashed off the coast of California and sank in 1935. The researchers used remotely operated vehicles to explore the remains of the airship and the four Sparrowhawk biplanes it carried. The Macon, which was the last lighter-than-air aircraft carrier used by the Navy, was on its way back from a mission when it ran into stormy weather. A tail fin was sheared off the ship, and the crew was unable to maintain control. Two crewmen were lost, but 74 others survived.

The scientists took 360-degree video of one of the biplanes, and measured the corroded parts of one airplane wing. They also measured how much sediment had built up since the 1935 crash. The ROV also retrieved a piece of an aluminum girder for research use. The team’s data will be compared with data collected in a 2006 expedition to help determine how fast the wreck is corroding. “We’re really extending the life of this airship and her biplanes and documenting the past 80 years she spent underwater, which is the majority of her life,” said NOAA archaeologist Megan Lickliter-Mundon, during the live broadcast.


It might be a stretch to say this vehicle “flew,” since it barely rose above the ground and the three-axis controls seem a bit limited — but a hobbyist in the UK did get his home-built multi-rotor aircraft aloft for the first time, and documented it in a YouTube video. The design is reminiscent of the layout used by the e-Volo team, but it’s powered by 54 18-inch propellers like the standard kind used for remote-control hobby airplanes, each with its own individual battery pack. The builder, who identifies himself only as “gasturbine101” on YouTube, says the aircraft has an endurance of 10 minutes. The video has gone viral, with almost 2.5 million views since it was posted about a week ago.

In notes posted below the video, the builder says the aircraft props are used at “a relatively low fraction of their thrust/rpm capability” so they should be reliable, though they’re “needlessly heavy.” And he adds that he took on the project as “just a bit of fun for myself … never intended for making a significant journey or flying much above head height.” The entire system cost about $9,000, he said. The aircraft’s “biggest flaw,” the builder said, is that “the large number of props running at high speed means the net torque reactions are relatively low, so the craft has little yaw authority.” A tail rotor might help, he said, for better turn control.

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Judy Rice and the Think Global Flight team have returned from their two-month trip around the world promoting education in an aviation context to students and adults in 25 countries. They departed Burbank, California on June 13 in a donated Citation Mustang. Along the way, Rice reached out to more than 20,000 students, who were exposed to†STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) educational projects via Think Global Flight’s Student Command Centers. AVweb’s Elaine Kauh talked with Rice about her visits with students and what’s ahead for Think Global Flight’s educational initiatives.


Most aerial firefighting aircraft are relics of the 1950s and 1960s, but Canadian air tanker modification company Conair is adapting a 21st century design to firefighting work. †AVweb's Russ Niles got a tour of the Avro RJ85 at Conair's Abbotsford, British Columbia headquarters.

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During the six hours that elapsed between the time I decided to write this blog and my actually pushing the button to publish it, 16 people were killed in fatal auto accidents in the U.S. None were killed by drones, nor probably even nicked. How do I know about the car wrecks? I don’t. I completely made up that number to make a point. Car wrecks kill so many people—32,719 in 2013—that they’re non-news to the point that we don’t even have an easy means of tracking them on a daily basis. In fact, we’re so blasť about the carnage that nine months into 2015, we don’t even know how many fatal car crashes there were last year.

Yet … yet, if a drone is suspected of denting the wing of an Aztec, as happened this week, or an airline pilot spots a quadcopter, we’re on it like white on rice. Why is this? It’s the terror of the third dimension, perhaps proving that our psyches haven’t really adapted to or accepted the fact that man can fly. We’re OK with burning car wrecks, careening trains and shipwrecks, but anything that levitates above the surface embodies blind, howling terror.

Some of this is due to the remorseless effects of gravity, but much of it owes to media hysteria that feeds the fear of flying we all know is so basic to human nature. And to see what that looks like close up, I have only to look in the mirror. Even though here at AVweb, we’re steely-eyed aviation journalists, we picked up the “unconfirmed” airplane/drone collision story for the same reason everyone else did: We’re Google SEO addicts. For as intense as the competition has always been to print a story first, it’s far more intense now. The standards of confirmation have, shall we say, eroded. It’s true of us; it’s true of everyone.

How the story got out there in the first place is confusing, but the pilot involved never suggested he had hit a drone, according to a source I spoke to who was firsthand in the investigation. The pilot merely said he had hit an object. Someone, most likely from the FAA, examined the dent in the wing and de-ice boots and observed small squiggly witness marks that were deemed suggestive of the plastic props on a quadcopter, never mind that no one has any idea of what kind of marks these props would actually leave. No conclusion was officially drawn blaming a drone, but the story took on a life of its own and became a case of guilty until proven innocent. Which, later in the week, the Smithsonian did by examining the de-ice boot and finding bird guts, not traces of lithium ion. So the mysterious object was just another birdstrike, of which there are many hundreds each year. But no drones. (So far, at least.)

The hysteria seems to have evolved to the point that there’s the full expectation that there will be a drone strike and, by golly, this sure looked like pay dirt. But sorry, no brass ring this time. I’m beginning to wonder if some in the FAA are so anxious about drone strikes that they’re desperate to find one just to move their regulatory efforts out of neutral, where they’ve been for years. At this point and despite my own research that suggests the likelihood of a drone collision is small,†let me just stipulate that it will happen eventually. It might even cause a fatality or hull loss, albeit probably not a transport category aircraft. If it does happen, what’s the FAA to do? Ban drones of all sizes? Not gonna happen. Eventually, we’ll all have to understand that this drone thing is a new technology and new technologies come at a price that might include accidents. There’s no something for nothing in anything. We eventually accepted this with all forms of transportation and it will have to be no different with drones. I'm thinking of making up a batch of t-shirts with the crown emblem and this: Remain calm and enjoy your general aviation flight.

For the short term, the FAA is on the right track in its Know Before You Fly initiative to educate buyers of consumer drones about flying them responsibly. But it’s not moving nearly aggressively enough. Last May, it announced a smartphone app called B4UFLY designed to give would-be drone operators a heads up on airspace and regulatory issues. Here it is September and it’s still not available. Second, and more concerning to me, is the seemingly burgeoning number of pilot “sightings” of drones that merely gives the news media fodder for scare stories highlighting the fact that something must be done and nobody appears to be doing it. And it's getting worse by the day.†I think the FAA—or somebody—could do us all a solid by following up and verifying these sighting reports to make sense of what risk they represent (if any) and put them into a context that allows realistic risk assessment. I’m betting that most of them are meaningless noise. But it would be nice to know.

When he retired, the former head of the FAA’s drone integration office, Jim Williams, said the job was enough work for three people. So now, as we reported last week in the very same unconfirmed collision story,†the FAA has hired two people to replace him. I hope between them, they find the will and resources to validate sightings and risk rank them and to†get reasonable regulation on track, which it has not been. No one should underestimate the challenge, but that’s no excuse for the current paralysis.

Meanwhile—and this is the trickiest of all—localities are dealing with drone regulation on the fly, so to speak. As I was writing this, yet another scare story surfaced of a New York teacher crashing a drone into empty seats at the U.S. Open on Thursday night. This sort of stupidity represents more of a threat of Draconian over-regulation than it does actually harming people on the ground. Local cities and towns could enact a patchwork mess of laws and regulations that would turn operators into high-tech scofflaws while also chilling a legitimate industry.

Yet people who do things like that need to be apprehended and, I think, pretty heavily fined and even jailed in the case of injury or death. No one can be entirely dismissive of the citizenry’s legitimate fears of these machines, not to mention concerns about privacy and noise. Just as I’d never walk into a Starbucks with a slung AR-15 just to make a Second Amendment point, so too should consumer drone operators avoid gratuitously scaring the tar out of people at public events or even in their own backyards. Nor should local jurisdictions overreact and try to ban drone operation everywhere, just as some cities attempted to ban automobile operation at the turn of the last century.

There’s a balance in here somewhere and as long as fear drives the media coverage, it will be elusive. But it will have to come because drones as a fundamental technology are here to stay.

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Premier Aircraft, a well-known Florida aircraft sales and modification house, is offering a diesel 172 with a diesel conversion. AVweb took a test flight in it recently and prepared this video report.

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Kitplanes magazine editor Paul Dye is a former NASA flight director, but he's also a passionate homebuilder, currently working on a Dream Tundra. †At AirVenture 2015, he gave us his six top reasons for joining the homebuilt community.

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Lockheed Martin Flight Services is stepping up UAS awareness with its recently introduced unmanned traffic management (UTM) service. †Aimed at increasing situational awareness when it comes to sharing the airspace with commercial drone operations, UTM includes an evolving set of functions and services — including a simplified and automated UAS NOTAM filing process, online graphics (which show their operating position and altitude) — plus plans for future services in preparation for a growing number of drone operations. †In this podcast, Aviation Consumer editor Larry Anglisano speaks with Lockheed Martin's chief architect Mike Glasgow about UTM and what it means for pilots and UAS operators.

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