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SVO: The Path Toward Autonomous Aviation

Simplified vehicle operations (SVO) is one of many near-term technologies that offer exciting potential for business aviation. However, acceptance and certification of such systems will require evolutions in current technology and regulations – and redefining the interaction between pilots and their aircraft.

There are multiple paths to SVO, and it may be applied to any aircraft system. All involve using automation of specific tasks to reduce the skills and knowledge that a pilot or operator must have in order to safely operate an aircraft.

“It’s a matter of commanding the aircraft versus controlling it,” said Carl Dietrich, founder and CEO of Jump Aero and chairman of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association’s SVO Subcommittee. “SVO is a practical step in the direction toward autonomous systems that allow pilots to focus on executive-level decisions and not worry about lower-level considerations the vehicle itself can manage.”

“SVO is a practical step in the direction toward autonomous systems that allow pilots to focus on executive-level decisions and not worry about lower-level considerations the vehicle itself can manage.”

Carl Dietrich Chairman, SVO Subcommittee, General Aviation Manufacturers Association

In May 2019, GAMA published the white paper, A Rational Construct for Simplified Vehicle Operations (SVO), to familiarize the industry with the concepts behind SVO, including its potential safety benefits. Dietrich noted that while pilots may be reluctant to accept that safety can be improved through less training, examples can be found across many industries.

“The electric starter saved a lot of people from wrenching their shoulders when hand-cranking early automobiles,” said Dietrich. “More recently, we have FADEC [full authority digital engine control] systems in aviation. There’s actually a lot of precedent for technology increasing the level of safety while simultaneously reducing the level of skill and training necessary.”

NASA has worked on SVO throughout much of its history, including to identify methods to simplify tasks and reduce astronauts’ workloads.

“The hope is that the introduction of automation may aid less-experienced pilots,” said Dr. Natasha Neogi, a research engineer at NASA’s Safety Critical Avionics System Branch. “General aviation is publicly regarded as being less safe than the commercial airlines, and the hope is that certain types of automation, like SVO, will help change that.”

Nearer Than You Think?

Among the companies working on SVO applications for general aviation is Skyryse, which has successfully demonstrated simplified control in a Robinson R44 testbed fitted with autonomous control interfaces, enabling operators to control the helicopter’s movements through a tablet.

“We’ve focused on applying our system to helicopters first, due to their inherent instability,” said Ben Klein, the company’s general counsel and head of government affairs. “At its most basic level, SVO on a rotorcraft means doing away with conventional inceptors – antitorque, throttle, cyclic and collective – and replacing them with a much simpler and more intuitive interface.

“Ultimate responsibility for aircraft control will be placed completely with automation,” he added, “and the operator, at least initially, will remain responsible for commanding flight path.”

As those trials indicate, much of the technological foundation to support SVO already exists.

“At its most basic level, SVO on a rotorcraft means doing away with conventional inceptors – antitorque, throttle, cyclic and collective – and replacing them with a much simpler and more intuitive interface.”

Ben Klein General Counsel, Skyryse

Another example is Garmin’s Autoland, now certified on several GA platforms to assume total aircraft flight control, navigation and communication to facilitate a safe emergency landing in the event of pilot incapacitation. Though not an SVO system, Autoland hints at how such capabilities may be seen on more aircraft in the future.

“I view SVO as a framework to leverage automation and other technologies to reduce or potentially even replace the responsibilities of a pilot,” said Dustin Kilgore, aviation systems team lead at Garmin. “There are things I typically would have to do as a pilot that, with SVO, I no longer need to remain proficient in.”

With various permutations of SVO technologies already flying, it may not be much longer before such systems are available in GA aircraft. However, Neogi emphasized there’s more work to be done before autonomous control and remote sensing systems can safely facilitate truly “hands-off” SVO capabilities.

“There is still a technological leap forward required to ensure responsible automation capable of making decisions for the pilot,” said Neogi. “Systems must demonstrate they will always work as designed and never perform any unintended functions.”

Kilgore also noted “the question of technological maturity” in current systems, versus those needed to support SVO. “We have semi-autonomous cars using LIDAR [light detection and ranging] and cameras to detect obstacles in a dynamic environment,” he said. “But those systems haven’t matured to the point they can completely replace the driver, or to where they can really benefit aviation yet.”

There’s also the matter of familiarizing operators on SVO systems, which may prove an ever-greater challenge. NASA has performed numerous studies of SVO-like concepts dating back to the 1990s, and Neogi noted a common thread between them.

“We found the more you’d trained [to fly a conventional aircraft] the more you complained about the SVO interface, which was more like a video game,” she said. “Those with less experience were much more comfortable with it.”

“The technology isn’t easy, but it’s a challenge that can be met, and many people are working on it,” added Klein. “As with a lot of new technologies in this space, the real hurdle is regulatory. There are paths to certification [of SVO technologies] now, but there’s a lot of work to be done with matching training requirements to these new capabilities.”

SVO vs. Full Autonomy

Despite these challenges, it appears likely that pilots will see greater use of SVO in the future. That also leads to the question of differences between SVO and complete cockpit automation, as often referenced in the burgeoning urban air mobility (UAM) segment.

“I view SVO as an enabler for emerging aviation markets, and UAM in particular, where SVO is required to create a scalable system,” said Neogi. “SVO is one step along the progression from human-involved to assistive technologies to full automation.”

“SVO is a stop on the path to full autonomy, and a high level of automation underlies SVO,” Klein agreed. “I believe there will always be applications for SVO, even once full autonomous flight is certified and accessible, as there will still be applications where you’ll want a human operator, or when humans will want to be the operator. I’ll still want to fly on weekends.”

Kilgore also believes in ensuring humans still have a place on the flight deck.

“It’s not about developing systems that obsolete the pilot, but about developing systems that supplement the pilot to perform certain tasks more reliably than humans can manage,” he said. “At the end of the day, we believe having a pilot in the loop and the automation enhancing his or her capabilities to make up some of the ‘gaps’ is the better overall design.

“There is also a secondary benefit in that SVO reduces the barrier for entry into aviation,” Kilgore added. “If piloting an aircraft becomes as easy as driving a car, you open up the doors to have more people sharing those experiences, which bolsters our industry.”

Dietrich also pointed to the potential cost savings for those training to operate SVO-equipped aircraft.

“There will always be people flying Piper Cubs,” he said, “but if we want to grow the industry in a fundamental way, we must reduce the time and cost of training them.

“From both the safety and cost perspectives, this needs to happen, and it’s good for the industry for this to happen,” Dietrich concluded. “Software can be updated; it never needs recurrent training, and it never forgets. It’s incumbent on our industry at this stage to show these systems can work and can be safe.”

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