Airbus studies emergency traffic avoidance system to act without pilots

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System would shift responsibility for emergency air traffic avoidance manoeuvres from flightcrew to autopilot

Airbus is studying development of an advanced traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS) that would automatically manoeuvre the aircraft away from a potential mid-air threat without input from the flightcrew.

airbus tcas a350 w445
© Airbus 

 The new TCAS could be on the A350 when the twinjets enter service

“We are looking at the possibility that when you have a TCAS RA [resolution advisory], you don’t wait for the pilot to take avoiding action, but have the autopilot take control and avoid the traffic,” says Airbus vice-president training and flight operations Capt Jean-Michel Roy.

Although the “autopilot traffic collision avoidance system” has been presented to Airbus customers, Roy cautions that the technology is “not mature and is in the early stages of development – it has not been flight tested yet”. Airbus is believed to be working with TCAS supplier Honeywell, which was unavailable for comment.

The idea is “very doable”, says a TCAS expert, who adds: “It makes sense if the autopilot is engaged to let the autopilot do it.” The pilot must now disengage the autopilot on receiving an RA and hand-fly the TCAS climb or descend commands. Roy says it is unlikely the system would take control if the aircraft is being flown manually, as “the autopilot should not engage unless it is done so by the pilot”.

Airbus is “doing research and we see a potential, but we also see limitations and we have not yet explored all those limitations”, says Roy. He is not specific about if and when the new system will enter service, but says it will probably be available on the A350 when deliveries begin in 2010 “if by then if we have finished the evaluation”.

An industry source says autopilot TCAS has not been brought up in discussions with Airbus on the A350’s integrated sensor suite, for which a request for proposals (RFP) is expected later this year. Nor is the system included in the preliminary specification for a new traffic computer for the A320, for which an RFP is expected soon.

While the technology to manoeuvre aircraft automatically is not new – stick-pusher automatic stall-recovery systems were installed over 40 years ago – the emergence of a firm plan to implement such an automated collision avoidance system is “going to be a subject of discussion” within the pilot community, says Roy.

Honeywell is already working with Airbus on an “assisted recovery” concept that ties the autopilot to the terrain awareness warning system to provide an automatic pull-up if the aircraft is heading – inadvertently or deliberately – towards impact with the ground.

MAX KINGSLEY-JONES / TOULOUSE &
GRAHAM WARWICK / WASHINGTON, DC