We're used to hearing freaky, eerie, chill-inducing news about UAVs, because they're sci-fi-esque machines of war and spying. But check this out: New research into damaged UAV flight may end up saving lives.
Rockwell Collins has been using scaled-down models of military aircraft to perform research into cutting-edge UAV automated flight control, which is nothing new in itself: Most UAVs fly themselves to some extent, and the remote "pilots" basically tell the aircraft where to fly, where to orbit or hover, and where to spy. But this new research will amaze you since it gives the fly-by-wire systems the ability to fly the aircraft when big parts—like half an entire wing—are missing.
Fly-by-wire systems have been in military and civilian aircraft for years, replacing the direct muscles-to-control surfaces link that every earlier aircraft used to use (picture comedy footage of pilots physically wrestling with the stick in a diving 'plane). Basically fly-by-wire places a computer in direct control of the aircraft's ailerons, tail, rudder, and other control surfaces, and it moves them with absolute precision thousands of times a second to make the aircraft move in the air in the way the pilot wants it to. It's this precision that's one of the attractions. But the bigger benefit, that you may never think about if you're a nervous flier, is that the control computer can actually sense what the air and aircraft are doing much better than a human, fallible pilot can.
What Rockwell Collins has done is taught its smart fly-by-wire system to cope not only with "normal" flying conditions the aircraft may come across, but also extraordinary ones: Such as, flying with half of one wing and only one rudder, or where all roll control has been denied. It works in roughly the same way as the systems inside odd aircraft like the F117 Stealth fighter do—because the F117 is pretty non-aerodynamic, and would just plop out of the sky without the computers—but is just more adaptable.
The immediate goal of the research is to give combat vehicles the ability to fly even when they're severely damaged. But if some of this thinking is incorporated into civilian fly-by-wire airliners, then the vehicles will only end up safer—and potentially able to safely survive severe storm damage, bird strikes, or even small explosions. Hopefully no civilian aircraft would have to land under similar conditions to the following test: 80% of one wing lost.
Having said all that, sometimes a human pilot (combined with resilient aircraft design) can amaze too:
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