How Autopilot Works In Modern-Day Airplanes

It’s not uncommon for modern-day airplanes — especially larger commercial airplanes — to have an autopilot system. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the mechanics behind autopilot systems, you’re probably well aware of their fundamental purpose: to control the airplane without little or no need for human intervention. It’s an innovative feature that takes some of the burden off the pilots’ shoulders. With the autopilot turned on, pilots can focus their attention on other aspects of the flight, such as monitoring weather, trajectory and more. So, how exactly do autopilot systems work in modern-day airplanes?

Origins of the Autopilot System

Autopilot systems have been around since the early 20th century. According to Wikipedia, the first functional autopilot system was developed in 1912 by the electronics company Sperry Corporation. It was rudimentary when compared to modern-day autopilot systems. Sperry Corporation designed its autopilot system with a gyroscope, altitude, and operated elevators as well as rudders. Several companies further refined the autopilot system in the years to follow. In 1930, a British research organization called Royal Aircraft Establishment created a pilot-assisted control system that uses similar methods of automation. In 1949, American inventor Bill Lear developed an autopilot system for the F-5 fighter jet.

The Mechanics Behind Modern-Day Autopilot Systems

Autopilot systems have come a long ways since their origins more than a century ago. Prior to using a modern-day autopilot system, the pilot must program controls such as heading, trajectory and altitude. Once activated, the system takes over by transmitting these signals to the airplane’s flight control system.

Depending on the specific type of autopilot system, it may be able to maintain a navigational path using GPS coordinates. Just like the GPS navigation systems used in cars, trucks and other automobiles, many modern-day autopilot systems use GPS as well. The pilot inputs the desired coordinates into the airplane’s autopilot system, which tells the flight control system to fly in this direction.

Some modern-day autopilot systems also feature a semi-automated mode known as Control Wheel Steering (CWS). When enabled, this feature allows the pilot to control the airplane’s autopilot system using a yoke. As the pilot guides the yoke, the autopilot system converts these commands into heading and altitude data for the airplane’s flight control system.

While autopilot systems have evolved over the years, they are still designed to perform the same basic task of automating flight controls. With that said, autopilot systems aren’t a substitute for human pilots. Even if an airplane has an autopilot system, it still needs a pilot in the cockpit.