Safety You Don't Have to Think About

Safety You Don't Have to Think About
May 09, 2017

The growth of automation and autonomy plays a key role in the development of safety features on cars. However, automotive isn’t the only industry interested in chipping away at the gap between human operated and autonomous.

The aerospace industry is increasingly incorporating autonomous technologies into aircraft and maintenance operations to keep pilots and passengers safe in the skies.

Healthy Helicopter

Whether flying to an oil rig or into harsh environments to perform rescue missions, crews rely on helicopters to get them there—and home—safely. Optionally-piloted aircraft will lead to safer transport, aerial firefighting, inspections and search and rescue operations.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program is leveraging advances in autonomy to reduce pilot workload, augment mission performance, and improve aircraft safety and reliability. DARPA is working with Sikorsky to improve and expand the capabilities for both fixed wing airplanes and helicopters.

"Our autonomy capabilities will help pilots in high workload and degraded visual environments ultimately increasing safety and efficiency," explained Mark Miller, vice president of Sikorsky Engineering and Technology. "Pilots can choose to engage autonomy to help operate, plan, adjust and/or execute many responsibilities allowing the operators to better focus on the mission at hand."

Through the DARPA ALIAS program, Sikorsky is developing systems intelligence that will give operators the confidence to fly aircraft safely, reliably and affordably with two, one or zero crew members.

“Ultimately, everything we do—every new technology we develop—comes back to safety,” Miller said.

Collision Control

Controlled flight into terrain is when an aircraft under the control of a pilot is unintentionally flown into terrain, water or an obstacle, and it’s a leading cause of fatalities in both civil and military aviation. Although cockpit-warning systems have virtually eliminated this for large commercial air carriers, the problem still remains for fighter aircraft. 

“Auto-GCAS is designed to detect when something has gone wrong and take control of the plane before it crashes—saving the plane, and more importantly, the life of the pilot.”

The industry’s response is the Autonomous Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto-GCAS). This system is integrated with the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of F-16 fighter aircraft and helps prevent the leading cause of pilot fatalities, ground collision.

Auto-GCAS is designed to detect when something has gone wrong and take control of the plane before it crashes—saving the plane, and more importantly, the life of the pilot.

“The system consists of a set of complex collision avoidance and autonomous decision making algorithms that use precise navigation, aircraft performance and on-board digital terrain data to determine if a ground collision is imminent,” said Ed Griffin, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works® program manager for the Automatic Collision Avoidance Technologies programs. “If the system predicts an imminent collision, an autonomous avoidance maneuver is commanded at the last instance to prevent the plane from hitting the ground.”

Since the integration with the F-16 fleet in 2014, four confirmed “saves” have occurred.

Engineers are currently testing the integration of Auto-GCAS with other fighter aircraft, like the world’s most advanced fighter, the F-35 Lightning II. 

Engineering Spotlight: Saving The Good Guys


While you will not find the word “lifesaver” in Danny Kidd’s job description, the technology he’s supporting is doing just that. 

Danny is a software engineer with the Auto GCAS system. Over the last eight years, he’s supported multiple elements of the technology including the development of the algorithms behind the software and testing the systems to make sure they work as expected.

With the growth in automation and autonomy, there’s nothing typical about Danny’s day. From supporting manned aircraft—like Auto GCAS—to human and machine teaming, Danny and a small team from Skunk Works are committed to pushing the boundaries of autonomous technology. 

“The learning never stops and the job never gets stale,” he explained. “I’m fortunate to have the unique opportunity to work on a demonstrated lifesaver.”

His favorite part about his job is the opportunity to work with a small team on a variety of projects that last anywhere from six months to two years. This means he wears many hats, is cross-trained in multiple disciplines, and is able to touch a project through an entire development cycle. 

Danny’s advice to others interested in pursuing a similar career is volunteer for challenging assignments. 

“Often taking a difficult job on a project you’re interested in will give you a foot in the door,” shared Danny. “Once people see you perform, more opportunities will come.” 

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