We have an autopilot problem and most of the blame for it belongs to the FAA. Last week the FAA administrator Michael Huerta acknowledged the autopilot issue, noted that autopilots can be a safety aid, and said the FAA would do something to solve the problem.
The autopilot problem is that the FAA regulations have almost totally restricted an airplane owners choice for installing an autopilot in a certified airplane. In some less popular models of airplane there may be no choice at all.
The FAA’s contribution to this problem is its certification rules. I know we blame certification for lots of aviation issues. But when it comes to autopilots, it really is the morass of certification that keeps modern autopilots out of most GA airplanes.
Long-standing certification rules require that any autopilot be extensively tested in every individual model of airplane before it can be approved. The autopilot flight testing covers essentially the entire normal operating envelope for the airplane. Autopilot failures must be introduced in flight to be sure the autopilot does not fly the airplane into an unsafe attitude or airspeed before the human pilot can recognize the failure and disengage the autopilot.
In almost every case the autopilot manufacturer must make electrical and mechanical changes to the autopilot system to meet the certification rules. For example, one airplane may need more torque from the servo to move its flight controls so that requires more electrical power and a different mechanical clutch and capstan to connect the servo to the controls. Each change must then be flight tested and documented, and the testing only satisfies certification rules for that specific model.
Unlike most other avionics equipment that is eligible for installation in a huge range of airplanes once certification testing is complete an autopilot approval is limited to a single model. The autopilot manufacturer has at best a very small potential market after the certification investment has been made.
Because of this cost and hassle newly designed, new technology autopilots are very rare. When they do come along such as the new Garmin GFC 700 that is part of its flat glass avionics system, the autopilot is only certified in current production airplanes because that is what makes economic sense.
So the owner of a well cared for airplane that is more than a few years old can install the most capable and up to date flat glass displays, traffic warning system, WAAS navigator, ADS-B and so on, but the only autopilot option for his airplane uses technology that is decades old because the cost of certification keeps newer autopilot designs out.
The FAA’s certification rules made some sense when autopilots were not very smart analog devices that needed careful adjustment of gains and servo velocities and torque and so on to fly properly and safely. But digital electronics and microprocessors changed all of that. A newly designed autopilot can be “smart” and can teach itself to fly the airplane and store that information in memory. Certification of a current technology autopilot could be low cost and simple if the FAA would adjust its rules to match advances in electronics.
Low-cost, compact and very capable autopilots are widely available to homebuilders, and newly designed equipment is becoming available at a rapid pace. These smart autopilots learn how to fly the homebuilt without the long drawn out process FAA rules require for certification. So the homebuilder can have a very capable two or three-axis autopilot at an affordable cost while the owner of well maintained and perfectly equipped certified airplane has little or no choice in autopilots that are certified for his airplane.
Autopilots are a proven safety aid when flying in the clouds or low visibility, or when flying solo in congested airspace. They give the human pilot time to be captain while the autopilot is a copilot who holds heading and altitude. The FAA is so convinced of the safety autopilots provide that it won’t allow charter pilots to carry passengers while flying single pilot without one. And an autopilot is a requirement to fly single pilot in jets. It’s the FAA’s own rules.
So maybe the fact that the administrator went on record saying that the FAA wants to encourage the development and installation of new autopilots to enhance safety is a change in the right direction. Autopilot makers are understandably wary. If they invest in creating new, digital smart autopilots that can be installed in a wide variety of airplanes without costly and unnecessary certification, and then the FAA pulls the rug out, they are screwed. And so are we airplane owners.
The FAA administrator can set goals, and he has, but let’s see if the people in the trenches who make and enforce regulation and policy were listening to him. I sure do hope so.