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Previous winners of the Robert J. Collier Trophy read like a who’s who of aviation greats. Since the first award in 1911 to aviation pioneer Glenn Curtis, for his hydro-plane design, the trophy has celebrated outstanding achievement in aeronautical and, subsequently, astronautical progress. The award is backed by a stellar cast of recipients including: Orville Wright, William Lear, Boeing, Cessna Aircraft Company, Gulfstream, NASA and many others.
Now, there’s a new star to add to that firmament. The 2020 trophy has just been awarded to Garmin for its Autoland system. It’s not difficult to see why. Autoland is the world’s first certified autonomous system designed to activate during an emergency to safely fly and land an aircraft without human intervention. The awarding organisation – the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) – summed up the challenge neatly: “While rare, unfortunate pilot incapacitation accidents, and others like them, are almost always fatal.”
Not anymore. The Garmin Autoland, part of the company’s Autonomi range of autonomous safety technologies, is an emergency system which activates at the touch or a button or automatically if the pilot becomes incapacitated. The system calculates a flight path to the most suitable airport, while avoiding terrain and adverse weather, initiates a stabilised approach to the runway and lands the aircraft – without pilot or passenger intervention, according to the manufacturer. The system is designed to provide the pilot, passenger and air traffic control with confidence and security that the aircraft will autonomously aviate, navigate and communicate en route to a safe destination in the event of an emergency.
‘The history of Collier Trophy is the history of aviation’
The NAA’s president/CEO Greg Principato told Corporate Jet Investor: “The history of the Collier Trophy is the history of aviation – in America at least. There were some great nominees this year and the award has long recognised safety achievements.” It’s a safety list that starts with Orville Wright’s trophy for his automatic stabiliser in 1913 and extends to Cirrus Aircraft’s 2017 award for the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System. And, in the following year, the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto-GCAS) team. Principato described the Garmin Autoland as “a real game changer”, which will make a major contribution to improving general aviation safety.
NAA chairman Jim Albaugh was also fulsome in this praise. “The Garmin Autoland system marks a significant improvement in civil aviation,” he said. “It’s ability to take over an airplane with a disabled pilot and land it safely will save many lives in the future. It’s a remarkable technical achievement and clearly merits the Collier Trophy.”
The technology was nominated for the award by NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen, after an in-aircraft Autoland demonstration last year. Bolen wrote: “After personally pushing a button at 10,000 feet over Kansas and coming to a full stop on the centerline of Johnson County Executive Airport with no human input, I realised I had just experienced one of the greatest safety technologies in the history of aviation.”
So far, just three aircraft are certified to use the Garmin Autoland. So, if you are planning to fly with a pilot who may become incapacitated, it might make sense to ensure the aircraft you climb aboard is a Piper M600 SLS, Daher TBM 940 or Cirrus Vision Jet, all of which are certified to use the Autoland.
Certified to use the Autoland
Autoland is the first to reach certification but not the only technology incorporating an autonomous landing system. As part of its development of autonomous flight technology for unmanned aircraft, X Wing is developing software which integrates sensors and maps with onboard flight control systems to allow regional aircraft to navigate, take off and land safely. It is becoming a crowded field.
Meanwhile, congratulations to the other shortlisted candidates for the 2020 Collier Trophy. They are the Bell V-280 Valor tiltrotor long-range aircraft, the reusable spacecraft SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon 2, Boeing Confident Travel Initiative, Reliable Robotics Remotely Operated Aircraft System (ROAS), US Air Force Green Propellant Infusion Mission Team and the Yates autonomous cargo drone Electrospace’s Silent Arrow.
Could Glenn Curtis, Orville Wright and their fellow recipients of the Collier Trophy have ever envisioned where their innovation would lead?