The autopilot system of an airplane is an integral part of the machine’s flight control technology. In fact, what most people refer to as the “autopilot system” is technically known as the Automatic Flight Control System, or AFCS for short. The autopilot system is just one component in the collection of systems that comprise the avionics of the airplane. The avionics consist of several components, including:
- Communication systems which relay messages between the pilot and passengers and from the airplane crew to the radar tower and ground control.
- Navigation technology which uses global positioning systems (GPS) and satellite technology to make sure the airline properly follows the intended route.
- Flight control panels and real-time monitoring systems dispersed throughout the airplane’s cockpit.
With the invention of the Automatic Flight Control system, pilots were able to automate many of the more mundane parts of flying an aircraft and became free to focus on higher-level tasks requiring more careful planning and thought. Since the advent of the first airplane autopilot system in 1912, many different AFCS systems have come on to the market over the last century. These are typically named and separated by the aircraft parts which they are able to successful control.
Acting as the brain of today’s autopilot systems is the integrated computer with its embedded microprocessors and equipment sensors. Throughout the duration of the airplane flight, this computer integrates the real-time feedback of each avionics component to constantly adjust flight plans and equipment levels. The following airplane parts play an integral in the AFCS real-time data collection and analysis:
- Gryoscope – The gyroscope helps properly direct air flow outside the wings of the plane.
- Accelerometer – The accelerometer takes electromechanical measurement of the plane’s changes in velocity to measure how quickly or slowly the airplane is changing course.
- Altimeter – Traditionally, the altimeter relies on air pressure measurements of the outside environment to accurately measure the altitude of the aircraft.
With this constant stream of data, the AFCS performs executes a series of pre-programmed calculations to make sure that each measurement stays within its optimal range. While modern autopilot systems end up doing most of the work, the pilot does still pay close attention to make sure the system is working as designed. In the event of a malfunction in the autopilot system, the pilot is able to quickly take control of the aircraft and steer the course.