An autopilot is a mechanical, electrical, or hydraulic system used to guide a vehicle without assistance from a human being. An autopilot can refer specifically to aircraft
An aircraft is a vehicle that is able to fly by gaining support from the air, or, in general, the atmosphere of a planet. An aircraft counters the force of gravity by using either static lift or by using the dynamic lift of an airfoil, or in a few cases the downward thrust from jet engines.Although...

, self-steering gear
Self-steering gear
Self-steering gear is equipment used on ships and boats to maintain a chosen course without constant human action. It is also known by several other terms, such as autopilot and autohelm...

 for boats, or auto guidance of space craft and missiles. The autopilot of an aircraft is sometimes referred to as "George", after one of the key contributors to its development.

First autopilots

In the early days of aviation, aircraft required the continuous attention of a pilot in order to fly safely. As aircraft range increased allowing flights of many hours, the constant attention led to serious fatigue. An autopilot is designed to perform some of the tasks of the pilot.

The first aircraft autopilot was developed by Sperry Corporation
Sperry Corporation
Sperry Corporation was a major American equipment and electronics company whose existence spanned more than seven decades of the twentieth century...

 in 1912. The autopilot connected a gyroscopic
A gyroscope is a device for measuring or maintaining orientation, based on the principles of angular momentum. In essence, a mechanical gyroscope is a spinning wheel or disk whose axle is free to take any orientation...

 Heading indicator
Heading indicator
The heading indicator is a flight instrument used in an aircraft to inform the pilot of the aircraft's heading. It is sometimes referred to by its older names, the directional gyro or DG, and also direction indicator or DI.- Use :The primary means of establishing the heading in most small...

 and attitude indicator
Attitude indicator
An attitude indicator , also known as gyro horizon or artificial horizon, is an instrument used in an aircraft to inform the pilot of the orientation of the aircraft relative to earth. It indicates pitch and bank or roll and is a primary instrument for flight in instrument meteorological conditions...

 to hydraulically operated elevators
Elevator (aircraft)
Elevators are flight control surfaces, usually at the rear of an aircraft, which control the aircraft's orientation by changing the pitch of the aircraft, and so also the angle of attack of the wing. In simplified terms, they make the aircraft nose-up or nose-down...

 and rudder
A rudder is a device used to steer a ship, boat, submarine, hovercraft, aircraft or other conveyance that moves through a medium . On an aircraft the rudder is used primarily to counter adverse yaw and p-factor and is not the primary control used to turn the airplane...

Ailerons are hinged flight control surfaces attached to the trailing edge of the wing of a fixed-wing aircraft. The ailerons are used to control the aircraft in roll, which results in a change in heading due to the tilting of the lift vector...

s were not connected as wing dihedral was counted upon to produce the necessary roll stability.) It permitted the aircraft to fly straight and level on a compass course without a pilot's attention, greatly reducing the pilot's workload.

Lawrence Sperry
Lawrence Sperry
Lawrence Burst Sperry was an aviation pioneer. He was the third son of gyrocompass co-inventor Elmer Ambrose Sperry and his wife Zula. Sperry is noted for having invented the first autopilot, which he demonstrated with startling success in France in 1914...

 (the son of famous inventor Elmer Sperry) demonstrated it two years later in 1914 at an aviation safety contest held in Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

. At the contest, Lawrence Sperry
Lawrence Sperry
Lawrence Burst Sperry was an aviation pioneer. He was the third son of gyrocompass co-inventor Elmer Ambrose Sperry and his wife Zula. Sperry is noted for having invented the first autopilot, which he demonstrated with startling success in France in 1914...

 demonstrated the credibility of the invention by flying the aircraft with his hands away from the controls and visible to onlookers of the contest. This autopilot system was also capable of performing take-off and landing, and the French
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 military command showed immediate interest in the autopilot system. Elmer Sperry Jr., the son of first gyro auto-pilot, Lawrence Sperry, and Capt Shiras continued work after the war on the auto-pilot developed by Elmer Sperry's father, and in 1930 test a more compact and reliable auto-pilot which kept a US Army Air Corps aircraft on a true heading and altitude for three hours, that was probably of the type used by Wiley Post
Wiley Post
Wiley Hardeman Post was a famed American aviator, the first pilot to fly solo around the world. Also known for his work in high altitude flying, Post helped develop one of the first pressure suits. His Lockheed Vega aircraft, the Winnie Mae, was on display at the National Air and Space Museum's...

 to fly alone around the world in less than eight days in 1933.

In 1930 the Royal Aircraft Establishment in England developed an autopilot called a pilots' assister that used a gyroscope and compressed air to move the flight controls.

Further development of the autopilot were performed, such as improved control algorithms and hydraulic servomechanisms. Also, inclusion of additional instrumentation such as the radio-navigation aids made it possible to fly during night and in bad weather. In 1947 a US Air Force C-53 made a transatlantic flight, including takeoff and landing, completely under the control of an autopilot.

In the early 1920s, the Standard Oil
Standard Oil
Standard Oil was a predominant American integrated oil producing, transporting, refining, and marketing company. Established in 1870 as a corporation in Ohio, it was the largest oil refiner in the world and operated as a major company trust and was one of the world's first and largest multinational...

 tanker J.A Moffet became the first ship to use an autopilot.

Modern autopilots

Not all of the passenger aircraft flying today have an autopilot system. Older and smaller general aviation
General aviation
General aviation is one of the two categories of civil aviation. It refers to all flights other than military and scheduled airline and regular cargo flights, both private and commercial. General aviation flights range from gliders and powered parachutes to large, non-scheduled cargo jet flights...

 aircraft especially are still hand-flown, and even small airliner
An airliner is a large fixed-wing aircraft for transporting passengers and cargo. Such aircraft are operated by airlines. Although the definition of an airliner can vary from country to country, an airliner is typically defined as an aircraft intended for carrying multiple passengers in commercial...

s with fewer than twenty seats may also be without an autopilot as they are used on short-duration flights with two pilots. The installation of autopilots in aircraft with more than twenty seats is generally made mandatory by international aviation regulations. There are three levels of control in autopilots for smaller aircraft. A single-axis autopilot controls an aircraft in the roll
Flight dynamics
Flight dynamics is the science of air vehicle orientation and control in three dimensions. The three critical flight dynamics parameters are the angles of rotation in three dimensions about the vehicle's center of mass, known as pitch, roll and yaw .Aerospace engineers develop control systems for...

 axis only; such autopilots are also known colloquially as "wing levellers," reflecting their limitations. A two-axis autopilot controls an aircraft in the pitch
Flight dynamics
Flight dynamics is the science of air vehicle orientation and control in three dimensions. The three critical flight dynamics parameters are the angles of rotation in three dimensions about the vehicle's center of mass, known as pitch, roll and yaw .Aerospace engineers develop control systems for...

 axis as well as roll, and may be little more than a "wing leveller" with limited pitch oscillation-correcting ability; or it may receive inputs from on-board radio navigation systems to provide true automatic flight guidance once the aircraft has taken off until shortly before landing; or its capabilities may lie somewhere between these two extremes. A three-axis autopilot adds control in the yaw
Flight dynamics
Flight dynamics is the science of air vehicle orientation and control in three dimensions. The three critical flight dynamics parameters are the angles of rotation in three dimensions about the vehicle's center of mass, known as pitch, roll and yaw .Aerospace engineers develop control systems for...

 axis and is not required in many small aircraft.

Autopilots in modern complex aircraft are three-axis and generally divide a flight into taxi
Taxiing refers to the movement of an aircraft on the ground, under its own power, in contrast to towing or push-back where the aircraft is moved by a tug...

, takeoff, ascent, cruise (level flight), descent, approach, and landing phases. Autopilots exist that automate all of these flight phases except the taxiing. An autopilot-controlled landing on a runway and controlling the aircraft on rollout (i.e. keeping it on the centre of the runway) is known as a CAT IIIb landing or Autoland, available on many major airports' runways today, especially at airports subject to adverse weather phenomena such as fog
Fog is a collection of water droplets or ice crystals suspended in the air at or near the Earth's surface. While fog is a type of stratus cloud, the term "fog" is typically distinguished from the more generic term "cloud" in that fog is low-lying, and the moisture in the fog is often generated...

. Landing, rollout, and taxi control to the aircraft parking position is known as CAT IIIc. This is not used to date, but may be used in the future. An autopilot is often an integral component of a Flight Management System
Flight management system
A flight management system is a fundamental part of a modern airliner's avionics. An FMS is a specialized computer system that automates a wide variety of in-flight tasks, reducing the workload on the flight crew to the point that modern aircraft no longer carry flight engineers or navigators. A...


Modern autopilots use computer
A computer is a programmable machine designed to sequentially and automatically carry out a sequence of arithmetic or logical operations. The particular sequence of operations can be changed readily, allowing the computer to solve more than one kind of problem...

 software to control the aircraft. The software reads the aircraft's current position, and then controls a Flight Control System to guide the aircraft. In such a system, besides classic flight controls, many autopilots incorporate thrust control capabilities that can control throttles to optimize the airspeed, and move fuel to different tanks to balance the aircraft in an optimal attitude in the air. Although autopilots handle new or dangerous situations inflexibly, they generally fly an aircraft with a lower fuel-consumption than a human pilot.

The autopilot in a modern large aircraft typically reads its position and the aircraft's attitude from an inertial guidance system. Inertial guidance systems accumulate errors over time. They will incorporate error reduction systems such as the carousel system that rotates once a minute so that any errors are dissipated in different directions and have an overall nulling effect. Error in gyroscopes is known as drift. This is due to physical properties within the system, be it mechanical or laser guided, that corrupt positional data. The disagreements between the two are resolved with digital signal processing
Digital signal processing
Digital signal processing is concerned with the representation of discrete time signals by a sequence of numbers or symbols and the processing of these signals. Digital signal processing and analog signal processing are subfields of signal processing...

, most often a six-dimensional Kalman filter
Kalman filter
In statistics, the Kalman filter is a mathematical method named after Rudolf E. Kálmán. Its purpose is to use measurements observed over time, containing noise and other inaccuracies, and produce values that tend to be closer to the true values of the measurements and their associated calculated...

. The six dimensions are usually roll, pitch, yaw, altitude
Altitude or height is defined based on the context in which it is used . As a general definition, altitude is a distance measurement, usually in the vertical or "up" direction, between a reference datum and a point or object. The reference datum also often varies according to the context...

, latitude
In geography, the latitude of a location on the Earth is the angular distance of that location south or north of the Equator. The latitude is an angle, and is usually measured in degrees . The equator has a latitude of 0°, the North pole has a latitude of 90° north , and the South pole has a...

, and longitude
Longitude is a geographic coordinate that specifies the east-west position of a point on the Earth's surface. It is an angular measurement, usually expressed in degrees, minutes and seconds, and denoted by the Greek letter lambda ....

. Aircraft may fly routes that have a required performance factor, therefore the amount of error or actual performance factor must be monitored in order to fly those particular routes. The longer the flight, the more error accumulates within the system. Radio aids such as DME, DME updates, and GPS may be used to correct the aircraft position.

Computer system details

The hardware of an autopilot varies from implementation to implementation, but is generally designed with redundancy and reliability as foremost considerations. For example, the Rockwell Collins AFDS-770 Autopilot Flight Director System used on the Boeing 777
Boeing 777
The Boeing 777 is a long-range, wide-body twin-engine jet airliner manufactured by Boeing Commercial Airplanes. It is the world's largest twinjet and is commonly referred to as the "Triple Seven". The aircraft has seating for over 300 passengers and has a range from , depending on model...

, uses triplicated FCP-2002 microprocessors which have been formally verified and are fabricated in a radiation resistant process.

Software and hardware in an autopilot is tightly controlled, and extensive test procedures are put in place.

Some autopilots also use design diversity. In this safety feature, critical software processes will not only run on separate computers and possibly even using different architectures, but each computer will run software created by different engineering teams, often being programmed in different programming languages. It is generally considered unlikely that different engineering teams will make the same mistakes. As the software becomes more expensive and complex, design diversity is becoming less common because fewer engineering companies can afford it. The flight control computers on the Space Shuttle
Space Shuttle
The Space Shuttle was a manned orbital rocket and spacecraft system operated by NASA on 135 missions from 1981 to 2011. The system combined rocket launch, orbital spacecraft, and re-entry spaceplane with modular add-ons...

 uses this design: there are five computers, four of which redundantly run identical software, and a fifth backup running software that was developed independently. The software on the fifth system provides only the basic functions needed to fly the Shuttle, further reducing any possible commonality with the software running on the four primary systems.


Instrument-aided landings
In aviation, autoland describes a system that fully automates the landing phase of an aircraft's flight, with the human crew merely supervising the process.-Description:...

 are defined in categories by the International Civil Aviation Organization
International Civil Aviation Organization
The International Civil Aviation Organization , pronounced , , is a specialized agency of the United Nations. It codifies the principles and techniques of international air navigation and fosters the planning and development of international air transport to ensure safe and orderly growth...

. These are dependent upon the required visibility level and the degree to which the landing can be conducted automatically without input by the pilot.

CAT I - This category permits pilots to land with a decision height of 200 ft (61 m) and a forward visibility or Runway Visual Range (RVR) of 550 m. Simplex autopilots are sufficient.

CAT II - This category permits pilots to land with a decision height between 200 ft and 100 ft (≈ 30 m) and a RVR of 300 m. Autopilots have a fail passive requirement.

CAT IIIa -This category permits pilots to land with a decision height as low as 50 ft (15 m) and a RVR of 200 m. It needs a fail-passive autopilot. There must be only a 10−6 probability of landing outside the prescribed area.

CAT IIIb - As IIIa but with the addition of automatic roll out after touchdown incorporated with the pilot taking control some distance along the runway. This category permits pilots to land with a decision height less than 50 feet or no decision height and a forward visibility of 250 ft (76 m, compare this to aircraft size, some of which are now over 70 m long) or 300 ft (91 m) in the United States. For a landing-without-decision aid, a fail-operational autopilot is needed. For this category some form of runway guidance system is needed: at least fail-passive but it needs to be fail-operational for landing without decision height or for RVR below 100 m.

CAT IIIc - As IIIb but without decision height or visibility minimums, also known as "zero-zero".

Fail-passive autopilot: in case of failure, the aircraft stays in a controllable position and the pilot can take control of it to go around or finish landing. It is usually a dual-channel system.

Fail-operational autopilot: in case of a failure below alert height, the approach, flare and landing can still be completed automatically. It is usually a triple-channel system or dual-dual system.

Radio-controlled models

In radio-controlled model
Radio-controlled model
A radio-controlled model is a model that is steerable with the use of radio control. All types of vehicles imaginable have had RC systems installed in them, including cars, boats, planes, and even helicopters and scale railway locomotives....

ling, and especially RC aircraft
Radio-controlled aircraft
A radio-controlled aircraft is controlled remotely by a hand-held transmitter and a receiver within the craft...

 and helicopters
Radio-controlled helicopter
Radio-controlled helicopters are model aircraft which are distinct from RC airplanes because of the differences in construction, aerodynamics, and flight training...

, an autopilot is usually a set of extra hardware and software that deals with pre-programming the model's flight.

See also

  • Acronyms and abbreviations in avionics
    Acronyms and abbreviations in avionics
    -A:*ACARS: Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System.*ACAS: Airborne Collision Avoidance System.*ACP: Audio Control Panel.*ACS: Audio Control System.*ADAHRS: Air Data and Attitude Heading Reference System.*ADC: Air Data Computer....

  • Gyrocompass
    A gyrocompass­ is a type of non-magnetic compass which bases on a fast-spinning disc and rotation of our planet to automatically find geographical direction...

  • Autonomous car

External Links

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