Heroics inspire safe landing system

Aerospace engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, NASA and Boeing have developed a flight safety system inspired by the actions of two pilots who saved 185 lives when they crash-landed their crippled United Airlines DC-10 at Sioux City in 1989.

The computer controlled safety system may, say its developers, allow damaged airliners to land themselves.

The system – which has already been tested successfully on an F-16 Fighter and an MD-11 passenger jet – is designed to detect any damage to engines or any of a plane’s flight control surfaces, and instantly adjust the remaining control surfaces or power resources to compensate.

The system has been tested successfully on an F-16 Fighter and an MD-11 passenger jet. Both aircraft landed without human assistance using power-only control (POC). It has also been tested in flight simulators of a variety of other aircraft, including Boeing 747s.

But power-only control is said to be limited because it doesn’t make use of any parts of control surfaces that might still function. So it is now being combined with an adaptive neural network developed by Georgia Tech aerospace engineer, Anthony Calise.

The resulting system, called the Integrated Neural Flight and Propulsion Control System (INFPCS), should be capable of responding to ‘single failures or multiple failures, all the way down to full loss of control surfaces on the 747,’ said Calise.

Previous neural networks required offline ‘training’ and took up to four seconds before the neural network reconfigured the plane and compensated for damage.

Calise’s neural network has been designed to react within a few tenths of a second, fast enough for the reconfiguration to go unnoticed by the pilots flying the aircraft-and far faster than a person could react.

Rather than constantly scanning for failures or damage to the plane, the INFPCS compares what the pilot is doing with the aircraft’s behaviour.

If they don’t match, it assumes a failure has occurred and attempts to compensate. ‘It uses a desired handling module,’ said John Kaneshige, a researcher with NASA. ‘If it’s not behaving in a particular way the INFPCS modifies it.’