The recent successful first fully autonomous takeoff and landing test flight of the Aurora Flight Sciences Centaur optionally piloted twin-engine aircraft showcased the autopilot capabilities of the Rockwell Collins Athena 411 control system.
“The successful flight test marks the first time that an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) autopilot has been flown in an optionally piloted aircraft,” said Dave Schreck, director of UAS and Control Technologies for Rockwell Collins. “We are using affordable UAS technology to bring advanced aerospace functions and enhanced safety features to optionally piloted vehicles.”
Developed originally for military UAS applications, the Athena 411 provides attitude and heading measurements with static and dynamic accuracy superior to traditional spinning mass vertical and directional gyros. Developed for compatibility with both unmanned and manned aircraft applications, the Athena 411 is an integrated inertial navigation system, GPS, air data/attitude and heading reference system and flight control system.
With unprecedented flexibility of operation, Centaur is a new type of aircraft that can be flown in three modes. First, it can be piloted like a normal general aviation aircraft, retaining its FAA certification and the full functionality of its flight management system. In less than four hours, it can be converted to an unmanned aircraft, using a completely separate control system installed where the copilot normally sits.
Finally, it can be flown in a hybrid mode, operated as a UAV but with a crew onboard. The crew can control the aircraft using an onboard control station, operate payloads and perform experiments, interact with air traffic controllers, and serve as a safety observer. The human pilot can override the robotic flight control system at any time, with both electronic and mechanical override options.