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Automatic pilots, or autopilots, are
devices for controlling spacecraft,
aircraft, watercraft, missiles and
vehicles without constant human

An autopilot can refer specifically to aircraft,

self-steering gear for boats, or auto guidance
of space craft and missiles.

How do these heavy machines take to the air?

To answer that question, we have to enter the
world of fluid mechanics.
In the early days of aviation, aircraft required
the continuous attention of a pilot in order to
fly safely.

The first aircraft autopilot was developed by

Sperry Corporation in 1912.

The autopilot connected a gyroscopic Heading

indicator and attitude indicator to hydraulically
operated elevators and rudder.
It permitted the aircraft to fly straight and
level on a compass course without a pilot's
attention, greatly reducing the pilot's

Lawrence Sperry (the son of famous inventor Elmer Sperry)

demonstrated it two years later in 1914 at an aviation
safety contest held in Paris. At the contest, Sperry
demonstrated the credibility of the invention by flying
the aircraft with his hands away from the controls
This autopilot system was also capable of
performing take-off and landing, and the French
military command showed immediate interest in
the autopilot system.

In 1930 test a more compact and reliable auto-

pilot which kept a US Army Air Corps aircraft on
a true heading and altitude for three hours, that
was probably of the type used by Wiley Post to fly
alone around the world in less than eight days
in 1933.
Also, inclusion of additional instrumentation
such as the radio-navigation aids made it
possible to fly during night and in bad
Thrust, whether caused by a propeller or a jet
engine, is the aerodynamic force that pushes
or pulls the airplane forward through space.

The opposing aerodynamic force is drag, or

the friction that resists the motion of an
object moving through a fluid .

For flight to take place, thrust must be equal

to or greater than the drag.
Every object on Earth has weight, a product of
both gravity and mass.
Weight's opposing force is lift, which holds an
airplane in the air.
This feat is accomplished through the use of a
wing, also known as an airfoil.
The faster-moving air moving over the wing
exerts less pressure on it than the slower air
moving underneath the wing. The result is an
upward push of lift. In the field of fluid
dynamics, this is known as Bernoulli's
How does an airplane turn in the air? How does it
rise to a higher altitude or dive back toward the

Consider the angle of attack, the angle that a

wing (or airfoil) presents to oncoming air. The
greater the angle of attack, the greater the lift.
The smaller the angle, the less lift.

A typical wing has to present a negative angle of

attack (slanted forward) in order to achieve zero
lift. This wing positioning also generates more
drag, which requires greater thrust.
The tail of the airplane has two types of small
wings, called the horizontal and vertical
stabilizers. A pilot uses these surfaces to
control the direction of the plane.

On the horizontal tail wing, these flaps are

called elevators as they enable the plane to
go up and down through the air.
Meanwhile, the vertical tail wing features a
flap known as a rudder.This key part enables
the plane to turn left or right and works along
the same principle.

Finally, we come to the ailerons, horizontal

flaps located near the end of an airplane's
wings. These flaps allow one wing to generate
more lift than the other, resulting in a rolling
motion that allows the plane to bank left or
Some larger aircraft, such as airliners, also achieve this
maneuver via deployable plates called spoilers that raise
up from the top center of the wing.
Avionics entails all of an aircraft's electronic
flight control systems: communications gear,
navigation system, collision avoidance and
meteorological systems.

Air traffic control system ensures the safety of

commercial and private aircraft as they take off,
land and traverse vast distances without incident.

Through the use of radar, computerized flight

plans and steady communication, air traffic
controllers ensure planes operate at safe
distances from each other and redirect them
around bad weather.
In the world of aircraft, the autopilot is more
accurately described as the automatic flight
control system (AFCS).
Three basic control surfaces that affect an
airplane's attitude.
The first are the elevators, which are devices
on the tail of a plane that control pitch.
The rudder is also located on the tail of a
plane. When the rudder is tilted to starboard
(right), the aircraft yaws -- twists on a
vertical axis -- in that direction. When the
rudder is tilted to port (left), the craft yaws in
the opposite direction.
Ailerons on the rear edge of each wing roll
the plane from side to side.
Autopilots can control any or all of these
surfaces. A single-axis autopilot manages
just one set of controls, usually the ailerons.
A two-axis autopilot manages elevators and
ailerons. Finally, a three-axis autopilot
manages all three basic control systems:
ailerons, elevators and rudder.
The heart of a modern automatic flight control system is a
computer with several high-speed processors .To gather the
intelligence required to control the plane, the processors
communicate with sensors located on the major control

The processors in the AFCS then take the input data and,
using complex calculations, compare it to a set of control
modes. These calculations determine if the plane is obeying
the commands set up in the control modes. The processors
then send signals to various servomechanism units. A
servomechanism, or servo for short, is a device that provides
mechanical control at a distance.
The basic schematic of an autopilot looks like
a loop, with sensors sending data to the
autopilot computer, which processes the
information and transmits signals to the
servo, which moves the control surface, which
changes the attitude of the plane, which
creates a new data set in the sensors, which
starts the whole process again. This type of
feedback loop is central to the operation of
autopilot systems.
Let's consider the example of a pilot who has
activated a single-axis autopilot.
1.The pilot sets a control mode to maintain the
wings in a level position.
2.However, even in the smoothest air, a wing
will eventually dip.
3.Position sensors on the wing detect this
deflection and send a signal to the autopilot
4.The autopilot computer processes the input
data and determines that the wings are no
longer level.
1. The autopilot computer sends a signal to the
servos that control the aircraft's ailerons. The
signal is a very specific command telling the
servo to make a precise adjustment.
2. Each servo has a small electric motor fitted with
a slip clutch that, through a bridle cable, grips
the aileron cable. When the cable moves, the
control surfaces move accordingly.
3. As the ailerons are adjusted based on the input
data, the wings move back toward level.
4. The autopilot computer removes the command
when the position sensor on the wing detects
that the wings are once again level.
5. The servos cease to apply pressure on the
aileron cables.
A common problem is some kind of servo
A bad motor or a bad connection.
A position sensor can also fail, resulting in a
loss of input data to the autopilot computer.
Fortunately, autopilots for manned aircraft
are designed as a failsafe -- that is, no failure
in the automatic pilot can prevent effective
employment of manual override.
. To override the autopilot, a crew member
simply has to disengage the system, either by
flipping a power switch or, if that doesn't
work, by pulling the autopilot circuit breaker.
Many modern autopilots can receive data
from a Global Positioning System (GPS)
receiver installed on the aircraft.

A GPS receiver can determine a plane's

position in space by calculating its distance
from three or more satellites in the GPS
An autopilot is a mechanical, electrical, or
hydraulic system used to guide a vehicle
without assistance from a human being.

Given the flight plan and the aircraft's

position, the FMS calculates the course to
follow. The pilot can follow this course
manually (much like following a VOR radial),
or the autopilot can be set to follow the

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