Rockwell Collins new wholly owned subsidiary, Control Technologies, is advancing what its senior director David Voss maintains will be the next giant leap in aviation - the "convergence" of manned and unmanned systems.
Voss says the evolution is already under way with several "variably manned" aircraft projects under way at the company. "We're very bullish on the market," says Voss. "It's the next big thing in aviation."
Although he would not reveal specific details, Voss told Flight International in late June that Rockwell Collins had completed or was in the process of flight-testing a "handful" of optionally piloted aircraft.
Voss co-founded Athena in 1998, largely to put into practice control and estimation theories and practices he developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he earned his PhD in 1992. Rockwell Collins acquired Athena in 2008.
One of those optionally piloted programmes may be the Aurora Flight Sciences Cessna 337 Skymaster, which has completed a one-year test programme incorporating autonomous take-offs and landings near Aurora's home base in northern Virginia. Rockwell Collins provides navigation and control systems to Aurora for other unmanned programmes, including the Golden Eye 80 ducted fan.
Another is likely to be the "digital parachute" Voss says he has developed for the Part 23 light general aviation market. The system, when activated, would take control of an aircraft, automatically fly it to a predetermined location and land. "We talked with all GA manufacturers about the digital parachute, and all were interested." He says the company has completed "several" successful demonstrations of the technology.
Hawker Beechcraft on 28 July revealed that it had completed a series of digital parachute automated landings on the fly-by-wire Bonanza research aircraft.
From a business strategy standpoint, Voss sees Part 23 as a prime candidate for his patented control system technologies, and Rockwell Collins as a suitor with the clout to make it happen.
Athena's reputation in the unmanned world is well established, with control and navigation systems flying on vehicles including the AAI Shadow, General Atomics Sky Warrior and InSitu ScanEagle.
The patented intellectual property in each case is primarily the controls and estimation using multi-variable and non-linear design techniques built into the company's products, which include single-package systems with flight control, autopilot and inertial navigation, GPS, air data, attitude, heading and reference systems (INS/GPS/ADAHRS) and other features.
Rockwell Collins typically builds between 20 and 60 units a month at its Warrenton, Virginia, headquarters, each taking about four days to build and test, including temperature burn in, input and output tests and calibration of air data and rate sensing systems over temperature.
Voss is optimistic the increasingly affordable advanced technologies he offers will lead to a "big turning point" in aviation, one that will benefit people like himself who have a desire to learn to fly, but not the time do it with today's old-fashioned avionics and training methods.
"When I can push a button, I'll get my pilot's licence," he says, adding: "It shouldn't be harder than getting a driver's licence."