Flight robot takes off

The number of small aircraft soaring in the skies is expected to have nearly doubled by 2020. To prevent accidents, it’s time to equip these planes with fly-by-wire systems, says Wouter Falkena (AE faculty).

Fly-by-wire (FBW) systems are now only installed in commercial and military aircraft. These systems replace the conventional manual flight controls with an electronic interface; actions of flight controls are thus converted to electronic signals transmitted by wires. This allows for computers to automatically help stabilize the aircraft.

Typically such a system costs around 1 million euros. Way too costly to even be considered for small personal aircraft. And that is a shame, because (according to the US National Transportation Safety Board) 72 percent of accidents involving small airplanes can be traced back to poor aircraft handling.

“Many of these accidents can be prevented by intervention of a fly by wire system,” says Wouter Falkena (MSc), who will defend his thesis ‘Investigation of practical flight control systems for small aircraft’ later this year.

Falkena’s PhD research was part of a larger European project called SAFAR (Small Aircraft Future Avionics aRchitecture), whose goal it is to develop a special – very inexpensive – version specifically for small aircrafts and which in turn should make flying, not only much safer, but also much easier and more approachable for individuals.

The Delft researcher focused on motion control arithmetics. “One of the challenges lies in developing a system with enough redundancy, yet by using fewer computers,” says Falkena. “Instead of obtaining its redundancy from many computers, which is expensive, the system has to rely more on software.”

The research so far led to a test version that was installed on a DA42 (an aircraft of Diamond Aircraft Industries, one of the research partners in the project). “The test flight went pretty well. But at a certain point the aircraft started oscillating gravely. Analysis showed there was a problem with the installment of one of the sensors.”

No reason to worry, according to Falkena. Soon amateur pilots can put their faith completely in this technology. “It is an iterative process. Once we have solved the initial glitches there is no reason to assume that the system will fail.”


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