AI & Autonomy, Rotorcraft

UPDATED: Skyryse automates helicopter autorotation, but some pilots are skeptical it can outperform human pilots

By Pat Host | November 15, 2023
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Skyryse in July performed what it calls the first fully automated helicopter autorotation emergency landing procedure, according to a Nov. 9 company statement.

Skyryse’s technology is a highly automated flight control system. The company claims it is the first and only system that works with the pilot through a reimagined human-machine interface to manage complex emergency procedures — including during autorotation after an engine failure. Due to the complexity of current control systems, the company claims helicopters have been unable to automate this manuever until now.

Using redundant flight controls and a suite of sensors, the Skyryse system quickly recognizes a power failure, sets multiple procedures in motion, and uses a button push to make the landing uneventful, the company says. From entry to steady descent, it lowers the aircraft’s pitch, aligns the nose, manages stability, completes the flare and lands at the desired landing location, according to Skyryse.

A Skyryse video posted March 3 to YouTube shows National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg flying a helicopter with a tablet computer and a sidestick-type controller. Skyryse in July performed a fully-automated helicopter autorotation emergency landing procedure. PHOTO CREDIT: Skyryse/Youtube

Skyryse said it has completed dozens of automated autorotations since the initial demonstration. The milestone automated autorotation took place in a Robinson R66 five-seat rotorcraft outfitted with Skyryse technology at its Los Angeles-area flight test and performance facility.

Mark Groden, Skyryse founder and CEO, told Avionics on Nov. 16 that in addition to a contract with The Robinson Helicopter Company, the company has deals with other aircraft developers to install its flight control software. Skyryse has contracts with Air Methods, a helicopter medical transport operator, to retrofit Bell 407, Airbus H125 and H130 rotorcraft and Pilatus PC-12 fixed-wing aircraft.

Skyryse markets itself as making it easier for lay people to fly helicopters. As flying is complex and requires pilots to constantly log flight time to remain proficient and safe, Skyryse says its FlightOS software can boost pilot supply by simplifying the cockpit and flight controls as well as automating certain features. FlightOS, the company says, makes it easier to manage any aircraft and earn a pilot’s license.

An aeronautical engineer and helicopter pilot with roughly 1,000 flight hours is skeptical of Skyryse’s claims that its software will allow average people to safely fly rotorcraft. This pilot, who asked not to be identified by name, told Avionics on Nov. 15 that there are many different scenarios where having a human pilot in the loop is important to ensure safety.

The pilot said mechanical inputs translated into a tablet computer do not necessarily add layers of safety. He said they may also degrade safety in certain scenarios, such as a rotor stopping or a false indication of an engine failure. Groden declined to say what Skyryse’s flight control software would do in the event of a tail rotor emergency, but said the company understands the importance of this issue and has been working on it for roughly eight years.

In a false engine failure scenario, the light may turn on and a sound may resemble engine failure, but a human pilot would attempt to enter autorotation and troubleshoot to verify whether an engine died. 

“If that happens, would the computer troubleshoot?” he said. “Once you start diving into details, there are complex scenarios where human decision-making is extremely important.”

Groden said Skyryse is trying to take the best lessons from Part 25 fixed-wing transport aircraft — airliners, which are flying triple-redundant fly-by-wire systems with dissimilarity. This technology, he said, brought a 90% reduction in loss-of-control in Part 25 platforms when it was introduced by Airbus in the 1990s.

Skyryse is certifying the entire flight control system, largely to Part 25 standards. The company’s system still provides the pilot the ability to make decisions and fly in conjunction with the fly-by-wire system similar to those found on a Part 25 airliner.

The pilot said there is also too much complexity in a tablet-driven fly-by-wire system for human pilots to quickly respond in emergencies. He said if a bird came into his viewscreen, he would not move the autopilot to change the heading because there is far too much lag and the gain on the system is too low. The pilot said he would need to “get on the sticks” and move the flight controls rapidly and disconnect the autopilot.

The pilot pointed out how Skyryse over the last two years subtly transitioned from flying a helicopter exclusively with tablet computers to adding a sidestick-type controller to go with the tablets. The company posted a video on YouTube on Oct. 27, 2021, that showed actor Jon Hamm learning to fly an aircraft with just two tablets and Skyryse technology.

Skyryse on March 3 posted a video on YouTube showing Bruce Landsberg, U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) vice chairman, using one tablet with the sidestick-type controller.

Groden said Skyryse’s product definition has remained the same since 2016. The company, he said, recognized one of the hardest parts of building its flight control system would be figuring out how to build a user interface that is extensible.

“We feel strongly that we’ve realized a human-machine interface that is definitely the best to leverage the full capabilities of the pilot and our automation system,” Groden said.

Skyryse is pursuing a supplemental type certificate (STC) with the R66 and has other STCs in progress. Groden said the company is in the final phases of getting certification for the R66.

Dan Patt, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute’s Center for Defense Concepts and Technology who has a PhD in dynamics and control, with helicopter applications, told Avionics on Nov. 13 that there is a lot of promise in the add-on automation approach used by Skyryse and others. It can make existing operations safer, build hours and reliability into systems, reduce pilot workload and create a path toward fully uncrewed operations, he said.

This article was updated on Nov. 16 with new information from Skyryse CEO Mark Groden.

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