New cockpit controls, displays make everyone a pilot

September 06, 1999

Within a decade, more Americans may leave their car in the driveway and opt to fly a small aircraft on their next 3-hour business trip.

That is the goal of a new NASA program which strives to deliver doorstep-to-destination travel at four times highway speeds to 25% of the nation's suburban, rural, and remote communities.

Easy-to-operate personal aircraft will cut travel costs by allowing direct access to many areas, cutting the odds of travel delays found with the current hub-and-spoke airline structure. NASA and its 70 partner companies are working together to push forward general aviation technologies. The hope is that widespread use of such improved aircraft will curb accidents, yet boost the number of small aircraft able to fly in our skies. Called the Advanced General Aviation and Transportation Experiments (AGATE), the consortium is developing new avionics, airframes, engines, and pilot training systems.

One part of the AGATE program, the "Highway in the Sky" ( Design News , 9/7/98, p. 88), is designed to create new display systems. Another portion of AGATE develops on-board flight controls and on-ground communication technologies to relieve the current overburdened hub-and-spoke system. The ambitious new program looks to allow more people to access small aircraft flights.

In the last year the program has made great strides successfully flight testing a flight control and display system last May at Beech Field in Wichita, KS on a single-engine, 4-seater Raytheon (Beech) F-33 Bonanza. The new cockpit displays would replace traditional circular "steam gauges" with advanced displays of graphically intuitive depictions of the flight path.

"This test flight demonstrated that the open architecture we developed for the entire cockpit works in flight," says Bruce Holmes, NASA general aviation program manager and director of the AGATE alliance.

The precision navigation system couples airborne equipment, such as a global positioning system (GPS), display systems and architecture, with ground equipment, including local-area augmentation systems, which provide differential GPS correction for more precise aircraft navigation.

A benefit of GPS technology is that operating capability will increase during difficult weather conditions. Holmes attributes the technology leap to the revolution in digital bandwidth, which has provided swift processing speed at reduced cost of memory.

The cockpit displays are driven by an on-board computer, which operates at 1,000 times the level of reliability of analog/mechanical steam gauge systems and at a fraction of the cost, says Holmes. The main reason for the boost in reliability is that a solid-state attitude heading reference system, which uses GPS technology for updates, replaces older spinning-mass iron gyros. The new system requires less power to run, thus there are fewer heat-damage-related failures according to NASA Langley Research Center (Hampton, VA).

Such reliable systems will enable 4- to 6-seat aircraft to fly from smaller airports closer to their passenger's homes boosting total air traffic capacity to 5 times current levels. This technology will make air transportation accessible to a vastly increased number of communities, especially small towns of 20,000 to 50,000 people without airline service, by allowing small aircraft to fly into these towns at cost-competitive rates.

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