Rockwell Collins to inject new autonomy into business jets

Washington DC
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Rockwell Collins' Pro Line Fusion integrated cockpit will be home to an increasingly comprehensive suite of safety-enhancing autonomy functions, early components of the company's long-term vision for more automated operations for business jet and airline cockpits, using fewer crew members.

First to see the enhancements will be the Fusion cockpits of business jets. One new feature already incorporated in the integrated cockpit, for which the company recently received supplemental type certification approval by the US Federal Aviation Administration, is an emergency descent mode that will turn and dive the aircraft down to 15,000ft (4,572m) if its systems sense pressurisation problems and the pilots are not responding. The 90-degree turn at the start of the manoeuvre is designed in part to eliminate the potential for a compressor stall in the rapid nose-down push, said Adam Evanschwartz, Rockwell Collins' principal marketing manager.

While automatic emergency descent modes that take over from pilots who may have suffered from a loss of consciousness during pressurisation and rapid decompression events are becoming more common throughout the industry, additional new features scheduled for inclusion in the next few years will set Rockwell Collins apart.

Included is a "one-touch" safe mode button or switch that a pilot of an auto-throttle-equipped Fusion system can push after losing situational awareness. Evanschwartz says one-touch will roll the wings level and fly that way for 15 to 30 seconds before climbing autonomously to an altitude safety above terrain and entering a holding pattern. "This gives pilots time to regain awareness and regain control of the situation," he said. A trade study is under way to determine what automated messages or transponder codes should automatically be sent to the ground if the mode activates.

Rockwell Collins is also developing a dual engine-out mode that will give the pilot a pre-filtered list of nearest airports and flight guidance cues to get to the selected runway. The energy-based guidance software mode is designed for the rare cases in which birds, volcanic ash, fuel contamination or other problems take out both engines.

Bob Ellis, Rockwell Collins' director of product and systems marketing, said the "next logical step" of automated modes such as engine-out guidance and one-touch safing is software that will automatically perform the approach and landing for a pilot who is incapacitated, elements that when combined with new decision support tools and automation could in the future allow for a reduced crew or a single-pilot cockpit.

Technology aside, Ellis said "significant" regulatory changes are needed, as are advances in ground-based air traffic control automation. "As operators and regulators get more comfortable with enhanced back-up modes, then over time regulations and policy will change for those to be back-ups for an incapacitated single pilot."