The solution for reducing pilot workload has traditionally been another pilot, or an observer/navigator to assist the first pilot – and in many cockpits this legacy lives on. However, for generations of military and civilian pilots, an autopilot device affectionately known as ‘George’ has been their mechanical right-hand man. For many years it was the only system in the cockpit that could share their workload. George could be used – and still is – to help a pilot fly ‘hands off’ without manually operating the control surfaces, freeing him up to concentrate on other flight deck tasks.
Automation in the cockpit has come a long way since Lawrence Sperry and George De Beeson first came up with the notion of an autopilot in the early 20th Century. The 21st-Century aircraft flight deck has become a temple to augmentation and automation – the former supporting and improving human decision-making and actions with technology, while the latter uses technology to reduce pilot intervention and control.
Horses for courses
Former Royal Navy Lynx/Wildcat pilot Simon Wilson is now a Qualified Helicopter Instructor at Leonardo Helicopters and says cockpit automation is all about roles, and it depends on what these are: “When it comes to autopilot and glass cockpits, civilian helicopters are usually better equipped than their military counterparts and often use new, off-the-shelf kit. Augmented reality (AR) systems, like some of the Garmin flight displays where graphical information is overlaid on terrain displays in the cockpit, can help the pilot with interpreting complex situations,” he asserted.
Up until the 1990s, it was very much the case of the military leading the way and trickling down technology to the civilian helicopter sector said Lee Evans, Senior Test Pilot at Leonardo and an experienced military helicopter pilot. “Roles like anti-submarine warfare required the ability to automatically conduct transitions to the hover at night and these were implemented onto platforms such as the Merlin, Seahawk and NH90. However, the huge increase in search and rescue (SAR) and oil and gas helicopter operations demanded the highest level of safety, accelerating the development of four-axis Digital Automatic Flight Control System (DAFCS) upper modes that could conduct fully coupled search patterns, hovers and instrument flight rules (IFR) approaches,” he commented.
“Military helicopters tend to be expensive and are fitted out to fulfil a specific role – like anti-submarine warfare (ASW), ground-attack, and medevac, etc. Here, you may get crossover from the original civilian design, as in some Leonardo and Airbus platforms like the AW149/189, and there’ll be a few differences, but it’s usually the same rotor system and fuselage,” disclosed Wilson.
Chris Chambers is a former Royal Navy Lynx Mk 3 and Mk 8 pilot, who is now an
Automation in the cockpit has come a long way since Lawrence Sperry and George De Beeson first came up with the notion of an autopilot in the early 20th Century
EC135 pilot with the UK National Police Air Service (NPAS). “The Wildcat IR camera is probably superior to our FLIR Star SAFIRE we use on the EC135,” observed Chambers, “and the Wildcat has four LCD screens for cockpit displays (two each on the left-hand side and right respectively), which are assignable to different modes and allow the pilot a useful view of the radar or mapping pictures. As a police helicopter pilot that would be nice to have, but we also need to bear in mind the origins of the airframes we operate – the Wildcat is procured, designed and built especially for its role as a weapons platform, while the EC135 is an ‘off-the-shelf’ solution with optional extras (i.e. the Police Role Equipment) provided by Airbus or third parties – so you kind of get what you’re given,” he said.
Slow into service
The ponderous procurement system operated by the UK Ministry of Defence can often work against the timely introduction of military equipment programs, as Chambers explains. “Military procurement is a long-term, drawn-out thing. The aircraft arrives, then you’ve got it for, say, 20 years, but with upgrades of course. There’s far more scope in the civilian world, with more commercial applications for cockpit automation systems available and the possibility to acquire them in a shorter timeframe than the military.”
Wilson believes that air ambulance and police helicopters in the UK tend to have much better-equipped cockpits than military aircraft. “It’s probably much the same scenario worldwide,” he says, “but there’ll be some instances where the military have the edge, too.
“The Westland Lynx and Sea King were around for a long-time and they had AFCS fitted, but the AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat is using a refurbished AFCS system taken from the Lynx. By current standards, this system is outdated and basic in function when compared to the export AW159 for South Korea and the Philippines, both of which have the current four-axis DAFCS that can do everything, and more than police and air ambulance can do. The AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin, though, is more on a par with current police and air ambulance helicopters,” he observed.
Electronic Flight Bags and ACANS
Chambers is a champion of the NPAS EC135 helicopter. “In the context of automation, I think our aircraft is, on balance, a superior platform to the military types. Our EC135s are certified and equipped for single-pilot IFR. Fundamentally, this means a three-axis autopilot. The Royal Navy’s Wildcat does not have this: it just has a simple AFCS system with an on/off heading hold and height hold that will hold a datum. It has no feed from a Flight Management System (FMS) or database,” he said.
NPAS are also using iPad Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs), but Chambers has mixed feelings about these as a concept, especially the ‘bolt-on’ nature of their implementation. “In principle, the Airbox’s Aviation Command Aircraft Navigation System (ACANS) iPad software allows coordinated/synchronized planning and mapping with other users,” he asserted. “So, during the task, the Tactical Flight Officer (TFO) in the back of my aircraft can put markers on the ACANS map that represent where she or he wants to search, which then appear on my ACANS map in the front, which is a great way of improving situational awareness,” said Chambers.
This ACANS information can be used by NPAS pilots to get to the scene of an incident, using the autopilot (AP) functions for routing. “In the EC135 I can use the autopilot for all manner of tasks, like hands-off navigation/routing and instrument recoveries, but I can also manipulate the AP functions to assist flying search patterns, which is incredibly useful,” declared Chambers, “and height and speed holds are all variable and can be adjusted from a beeper trim on the cyclic.”
The AP is also a huge advantage to the pilot when handling onboard emergencies. “I routinely usually have the nearest airfield pre-loaded into nav system, so in the event of an emergency I can do a very quick nav update, then hit the ‘Nav’ button on the AP and it will take me to the airfield, leaving me free to deal with the malfunction in the meantime,” he revealed.
Systems for commercial operations
There is a range of other systems intended to increase aircraft safety and operator spatial awareness that have been developed for commercial operations, which include Terrain Avoidance Warning System (TAWs), Obstacle Protection LiDAR System (OPLS), Obstacle Warning System (OWS), Traffic Collision Awareness System (TCAS), Synthetic Vision System (SVS), and weather radar.
“Leonardo’s laser-based helicopter Obstacle Proximity LiDAR System (OPLS) is like a parking sensor for helicopters,” observed Wilson. “It tells you how much main and tail rotor tip clearance you have from obstructions, like the edge of a cliff for example. It’s useful in SAR when doing cliff winching. This system would also be useful for air ambulance operations,” he said.
However, for NPAS pilot Chambers, OPLS would be of limited use: “An obstacle proximity system would be nice to have, but it’s very rare in our role in the South-West of England that we are in a situation where proximity should be an issue. We operate to CAT A and Performance Class 1 and 2 limits, which means the risk of obstacles are mitigated by these requirements and their associated obstacle clearances. Non-airfield/HLS sites that we regularly use are surveyed frequently to further mitigate risks. And we don’t winch either, so positioning close to cliffs is not relevant,” he announced.
The newest military platforms, like the AW149, now incorporate many of these commercially developed systems to increase safety and capability on the battlefield
AWSAR – ‘SAR Queen’
Leonardo’s AW101 All-Weather SAR (AWSAR) helicopter is arguably the best example of a military-style civilian helicopter – and it’s dubbed the ‘SAR Queen’ for good reason. “It’s absolutely the Rolls-Royce of helicopters,” exclaimed Simon. “It’s operated by the Royal Norwegian Air Force in the SAR role, with huge fuel tanks and long range, and it’s quick!”
“AW101 AWSAR uses all of the above systems,” disclosed Evans, “along with the latest generation of military grade electro-optical camera and solid state electronically scanned radar. Civilian aircraft have also been the first to implement Satellite Based Augmentation Systems Performance-Based Navigation (SBAS PBN) systems that allow much greater flexibility for instrument flight rules (IFR) that would greatly benefit military operations,” he added.
The newest military platforms, like the AW149, now incorporate many of these commercially developed systems to increase safety and capability on the battlefield. “Outside of weapons, sensors and defensive systems, the main area of pure military technology research for helicopters is the development of DAFCS and active and passive systems that allow safe and repeatable low visibility landings in brown-out or white-out conditions,” said Evans. “Active and passive LVL systems are very expensive to procure, integrate and test, but they could certainly help HEMS at night, especially when coupled with an Head-mounted Display (HMD) or Head-up Display (HUD),” he said.
Help from an HUD
For police operations, Chambers can see the benefits of an HUD to give guidance information when approaching a landing site at night. “Night approaches, run-ins, height judgement, landing – all we have for these is night vision goggles (NVG) and a radio altimeter (RADALT) as the main aids. They are almost identical to what the Navy Lynx has.” The Tactical Flight Officers (TFOs) in the back and front seats have their own RADALT repeaters and can call out heights to the pilot. “When I’m making an ad hoc landing onto an unprepared site to assist in a search for a missing person, for example, an HUD would be ideal,” he added.
Evans sees that future sharing of technology between military and commercial systems developers is desirable: “SAR and HEMs aircraft such as the AW189, H145, and AW169 are designed to be NVG compatible in order to facilitate 24-hour tasking. Any low-visibility landing technology developed by the military will also enhance safety and capability for these, now mostly civilian-operated, vital missions,” he maintained.
Chambers can see more potential in the way existing systems are developed rather than wishing for anything that the military may have. “For example, it would be technologically possible for the tactical flight officer TFO to use his/her finger to draw a route and search pattern on to the ACANS mapping – this in turn (via a suitable hardware interface) could provide a data feed to the AP (via the Flight Management System), which in turn would fly the aircraft, thus giving the TFO (who ultimately is the mission commander) control of the aircraft and bypass verbal instructions to the pilot (who would just be there to monitor systems and ensure safety, etc). It’s an interesting area – but be careful what you wish for,” he remarked.