What should an ideal backup avionics system be?
Should it be a big, heavy, expensive box filling up the airplane with hordes of possibly chaffing or sparking wires running to it, isolated from the commercial world in such a way that it is never upgraded?
Or should it be
as portable as paper,
as ethereal as electrons,
as upgradable as imagination,
and as connected as an iPhone?
Should it be as dumb as a box of rocks, simply showing a horizon?
Or should it be
smart like a human copilot,
checking your flight currency at the moment,
computing your weight and balance for you and showing you graphically,
giving you the optimum time and altitude for each trip,
pointing out short runways,
indicating what percentage of the runway you will likely use to take off based on your weight, altitude, and previous flying technique,
showing you nearby mountains or other terrain,
choosing the best runway to glide down to if the engine fails based on that runway’s length, width, and proximity,
and generating a constant-descent gliding instrument approach for you in an eye-blink to get there if the engine fails?
Let’s talk about that.
Let’s imagine an avionics system that is NOT designed to replace your EXISTING avionics, but is a tiny portable AI that is designed to help you fly legally and efficiently… but most of all SAFELY, by backing up many of the systems that can fail in your airplane. This is sort of an AI copilot, with the ability to help you operate legally and efficiently, but also give you tremendous situational awareness for the entire flight, and back up many systems that can fail in flight… including, to some degree, the engine, by designing steady glide-paths to the best runway to glide down to in the event of engine failure. We will call this AI “Xavion”… that sounds like a proper name an AI might have if it is designed to fly with you.
Now imagine that before you go flying, you have some sort of piece of glass with a computer in it that you cannot even see. I will refer to this as a ‘pad’. A pad that can have any software on it that you like, making it a pad that is perfect for you to use in everyday life… you might refer to yourself as ‘i’ when using this pad, perhaps.
Imagine that the AI we call “Xavion” lives on this pad.
Now, as you prepare for a flight, what if you had this pad with you at home. At home, you could fire up Xavion on your pad, and in only a moment you could be looking at the backup AI avionics for your airplane while still sitting at home or in your office… or in the FBO lounge!
Now, sitting at home, or the office, or the FBO lounge, imagine that you are running Xavion on a sliver of glass in your lap. Now, imagine that Xavion lets you instantly check all of your currencies at-a-glance. With literally GIGABYTES of memory, this sliver of glass with an invisible computer would have no problem memorizing when you had your last medical exam, your last BFR, your last instrument currency check, and when your airplane had it’s last annual. Opening up these avionics on your glass pad would instantly show whether or not you are current on these things at-a-glance. Now, you are not so afraid of an FAA ramp-check if there is one! And you can instantly see if you are current BEFORE you head out to the airport! Since this piece of glass would always know the exact date and time from it’s endless communication with every satellite and cellphone tower it can find, it would always know if you are current.
Then, imagine that by touching the screen, you could nearly-instantly enter the destination that you are going to fly to that day. Since Xavion would already have your airplane memorized, it would instantly show you the time and fuel requirement to get where you are going at all of the different altitudes that your airplane could fly. You would know at a glance what would be the fuel cost, or savings, and time the cost, or savings, of flying at each different altitude, or power setting. At that moment, you would know the BEST altitude to select for your flight, and your fuel burn BEFORE you left for the airport. You could make the call to the airport to have the plane fueled as needed so it is ready for you with proper fuel when you arrive. Ditto that for telling your passengers or people waiting for you at the other end when you will arrive. This is what happens when you carry your avionics with you.
Then, imagine that you could quickly enter the passenger, baggage, and fuel weights that you are carrying on this trip, and that this pad would instantly show you the weight, balance, and allowable weight and balance range for the flight, so you could instantly see if you are within weight and balance limits for the plane. Again, this could be done when packing a suitcase at home, or selecting passengers for a flight, long BEFORE you go out to the airplane.
Now, with only a few moments with a piece of glass in your lap, far from the airplane, you have
launched your avionics,
confirmed your flight currency,
found your most efficient altitude for the trip,
found the fuel load-up to order put on board,
found the time to be taken enroute,
and checked your weight and balance to ensure a safe and legal flight.
You know what fuel to order.
You know how much you can take with you.
You know you are ready for a ramp check.
You know when you will arrive at your destination.
Happy that you are ready to go safely and legally and efficiently, all as verified by Xavion, you grab your glass pad with Xavion installed on it and head out to the airplane. Then, you clip your glass pad into a little holder on the dash.
Taxiing out to the runway, Xavion checks it’s memory for every take-off you have ever flown, every one of which it watched by using it’s GPS to look at your changing speed and location during the take-off roll and climb-out. From this, Xavion knows the take-off distances that YOU get when YOU fly in YOUR airplane… numbers that will be quite different from the data that the test-pilots got in their new airplane when they generated the optimistic take-off distances in your POH… if you even HAVE a POH, which homebuilt planes commonly lack! Xavion has watched every takeoff you have ever made, so he knows how you fly, and how much space you are actually likely to use to get airborne. As you taxi out to the runway, he considers the weight you entered earlier, and the altitude of the airplane at that moment, and from that he adjusts the predicted take-off distance according to your weight and take-off altitude as the laws of physics will surely dictate. As you taxi onto the runway and stop on the runway heading, Xavion consults his database and based on your location and heading, determines what runway you are about to take off on. And then checks his database to determine how long that runway is. At this point, Xavion knows how much runway you have in front of you, and how much runway you typically use to get airborne. At this point Xavion points out what percentage of the required take-off distance is available to you. If that number is less than 150%, watch out.. the annunciation will be in red to let you know that your upcoming takeoff may be marginal. Xavion is watching your takeoffs now, and will of course do much more in the future… there is no interface for you to mess with here… it is simply an AI that watches, and speaks up if there is a problem.
So you take off.
In flight, imagine that this pad had internal GYROS that it could use to measure the rotation rates of the airplane to show a steady attitude indication, and that attitude indication was calibrated with ACCELEROMETERS to be always tuned to gravity, and those accelerometers could even work in a turn because they talked to a GPS to see if the airplane was turning by looking at the curve of the GPS flight path, so this piece of glass could always determine it’s pitch and bank angles, as well as location and slip angle of the aircraft.
In flight, imagine that Xavion was programmed by someone that made flight simulators for a living.
There would not be on old-fashioned artificial horizon, but instead there would be a computer-generated view of the world, much like you would see in a flight simulator. When asking yourself how hard it would be to maintain control in IFR or night operations, ask yourself: Can you fly X-Plane?
Now, in flight, imagine that Xavion is CONSTANTLY running an un-ending series flight SIMULATIONS, imagining what the airplane could do if the engine were to quit at that very moment. In fact, in it’s paranoid little brain, what if Xavion ran a flight simulation of a POWER-OFF GLIDE down to EVERY RUNWAY, IN EVERY DIRECTION, AT EVERY AIRPORT within gliding range of the aircraft, and kept running those simulations for the entire flight, always imagining every possible outcome if the engine were to quit at that very moment? Then, for each possible runway that your airplane could glide to, imagine that Xavion memorized a ‘score’ for each power-off landing, where the highest score is the one that goes to the longest, widest runway that is still within gliding distance, and then PRESENTED YOU WITH A SERIES OF HOOPS LEADING FROM YOUR AIRPLANE TO THAT RUNWAY ALONG A FLIGHT PATH OF THE PERFECT STEEPNESS FOR THE AIRPLANE TO GLIDE THERE POWER OFF, CIRCLING OR EXTENDING DOWNWIND OR FINAL AS NEEDED TO ARRIVE AT THE BEST RUNWAY ON SPEED, HEADING, AND ALTITUDE FOR A NORMAL LANDING AFTER POWER-LOSS?
In other words, imagine that your engine fails in flight.
At that moment, imagine that you could hit a PAUSE button on your airplane, pop out your cellphone, and give the FAA a call. Call the FAA and say: “Hello! I am over Cleveland at 8,500 feet and just had an engine failure. Can you please design an instrument approach for me that goes to the longest, widest runway within gliding range? Make the initial approach fix my CURRENT location, please, because I am way too scared and overloaded right now to fly to some pre-designated location to start the approach. Also, please make the approach at a CONSTANT DESCENT ANGLE, from my current altitude right down to the runway threshold… and make that descent angle equal to the glide ratio of my airplane with a decent margin for safety in there… extend the final or build some circles into the approach for me to perfectly use my excess altitude so I arrive at the runway at a comfortable altitude and heading for landing. Oh, and can you have that approach ready for me to use, checked for terrain and obstacle clearance, in about one fiftieth of one second? I could use it now. Thanks!”
Then imagine that the FAA says: “OK, no problem! We will have that approach done in one fiftieth of one second and have it displayed in your cockpit as some croquet hoops to fly through… just follow them to the runway!”
THAT is EXACTLY what Xavion does.
And imagine that this bit of AI on a piece of glass is ALWAYS running these engine-failure simulations, for the ENTIRE FLIGHT, and showing you the results of it’s watchful ponderings by showing only terrain that is within gliding range, and coloring each airport on the map according to it’s likelyhood of a successful power-off landing, and constantly updating the croquet hoops in the computer-generated image of the world that you are using for attitude reference and situational awareness.
With such an AI running, you would always know your power-off options, to the most exacting level of detail, right down to the ideal power-off glide-path to the best available airport, for every moment of the flight… and it would be presented in a format that is so easy to understand that you would need not a bit of training or practice to understand it… it’s just hoops in the sky that you fly through!
At this point, Xavion has given you
a crude backup of your airspeed indicator (GPS-derived speed only!)
a crude backup of your altimeter (GPS-derived altitude only!)
a crude backup of your vertical speed (rate of change of altitude only!)
a very nice backup of your slip-indicator (it’s internal acceleromters work just as well as any slip-ball!)
a crude backup of your heading-indicator (GPS-derived to track over the ground only! it’s magnetic compass is confused by the various electronic workings of the airplane)
an EXCELLENT backup of your attitude indicator (complete with a crude image of the world as it would be seen in day VFR conditions)
a SORT-OF backup for the engine (in the form of a glide that you can follow to the best runway if the engine fails, if you have enough altitude to make it)
a sort-of backup for a copilot (showing you expected take-off distance, runway distance in front of you at take-off, time and fuel expected enroute, and weight and balance)
How does this compare to a backup artificial horizon? It is certainly much less expensive.
Upon conclusion of your flight, you would take this piece of glass out of your airplane and carry it home, where you would plug it in to re-charge it, and perhaps connect to some sort of on-lie ‘store’ where you could update Xavion to make it even better for the NEXT flight.. something completely different from all of the other avionics out there. As well, you would fire up X-Plane on your home computer and it would send flight data to the avionics, making the avionics think that they are on in the real airplane, letting you practice with your avionics while flying X-Plane at home. This way, when you head back out to the real airplane, you are current and ready to go.
THIS is the future of avionics.