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Push a Button, Land on a Carrier 240

Posted by CowboyNeal
from the auto-pilots dept.
sane? writes "Putting an aircraft down on a carrier in bad weather is the stuff of melodramatic Hollywood films. Automated systems for conventional aircraft and big carriers has been done for a while, but getting a hovering Harrier, helicopter, or future JSF to land on a pitching deck of a smaller ship is a different matter. This week QinetiQ demonstrated a complete autoland - a significant step towards making the future JSF work."
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Push a Button, Land on a Carrier

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  • 10 cm errors are still significant enough to cause an aircraft to be damaged landing, or to cause damage landing. It sounds like the news article is actually a press release/prospectus in disguise.
    • Yeah, but it's gotta start somewhere.

      Only a matter of time before the margin is improved.
    • by Junta (36770) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @12:16PM (#12599280)
      Is it though? When driving your car, can you confidently say you know within a margin of error of 10 cm *exactly* where your car is, 1/3rd of a foot? You can bet pilots don't know within 10cm where there plane is relative to anything outside the plane. If any operation of such a large vehicle operated by a person required better than 10cm of precision to avoid damage, there would be serious problems..


    • While the article does tell of 'all weather' capabilities, the cruel sea is often outside the bounds of normally accepted 'weather'.

      Its worth remembering that the decks of RN carriers are extremely confined spaces, I would hope that if the system can't cater itself for the 1 in a Million chance wave that pitches the carriers superstructure towards the landing aircraft (causing damage to both) that it will still allow the pilot to assume control and direct his broken aircraft to the best of his ability ove
    • by hazee (728152) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @12:28PM (#12599349)
      Even a single seater fighter is a big beast, compared to say, a family car. If you've ever seen a Harrier thump down on the deck of a carrier, you'll see that the suspension gives considerably more than 10cm as the plane makes contact. I think 10cm is more than good enough - certainly better than any current pilot, and they seem to do OK.
      • Carrier planes land at, I think, 20+fps sink rate. I saw a video of an acceptance test for the F-18. They lifted it in the air sufficient to produce that sink rate, cocked it at an agle, and dropped it, untethered. It bounced quite a bit but settled down without ever hitting wing tips, tail, or nose.

        Ground landing sink rates are around 2 fps, I think (lots of old memories coming up here). That's one tenth the carrier sink rate.

        Also, just FYI, carrier planes run the engine up to full speed (which proba
      • Yeah I was about to mention the necessary strength of a Harrier myself.

        Most aircraft are designed to land on a nice smooth stretch of tarmac. Harriers and the future JSF *can* but don't require it. Harriers were originally designed with 'no tarmac' in mind, you can land one in a low brush pile if you must.

        Just consider the fact that most landings occur with the airplane coming in at a nice smooth angle and touching down. The Harriers can land vertically, and basically drop themselves on their landing
    • ever flown an airplane by yourself? it would be nearly impossible if 10cm would make a difference.

      for autoland itself - except for the higher precision in this case - nothing new. google up what CAT IIIc ILS approach means.
    • When landing a commercial airliner, the rader altimeter only gives the height of the wheels above the ground to the last 5 feet. The rest of it is down to the pilot's gut instinct and flying ability.

      Believe me, I've been on planes where they've just dropped the last few feet, and the autoland system on an Airbus can apparently never make a smooth landing.
      • When landing a commercial airliner, the rader altimeter only gives the height of the wheels above the ground to the last 5 feet.

        Perhaps this was true in the past, but modern airliners (and even not so modern airliners) give accurate radio altimeter readings down to the last foot. This is required for autolands.

        Point of note: if you ever look on the flight deck of an airliner, you'll see that the radio altimeter actually will read in the negative on the ground. For instance, a 767 will read -6. This is
    • Uhm... no.

      'Normal' aircraft landing systems are designed to allow you to hit the ground as if dropped (literally) from 3 meters.

      Aicraft carriors its 6 meters. Or maybe it was 9m. Anyway. 10 cm is fricking nothing at all.

      I am curious what you think could happen if the system screws up by less than 4".
  • by smcavoy (114157) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @12:02PM (#12599208)
    yeah, yeah but it's close enough
    "God Bless the idiot proof air force" -- Side show Bob
  • Land on a Carrier? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Mensa Babe (675349)
    The correct headline sould be: Push a button and land on a carrier as long as there is no software "glitch" or any single thing unforseen by the programmers, because unlike a real pilot, the computer will not quickly learn new skills to survive. Or are they going to make the system perfect, just like ABS, or ATMs, or PC software? Good luck.
    • by BenjyD (316700) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @12:13PM (#12599270)
      Flight controls on F-16s, F/A-18s, Airbuses and no doubt others are already computerised. Along with ILS/autopilot on most airliners. Reliable computers can be built, it's just that the cost of that reliability is too great for non-critical applications.

      Military training tends to start off with the simplest methods and work up to the more modern: navigation, AFAIK, starts with dead reckoning, maps and compasses and only later introduces GPS.
    • The correct headline sould be: Push a button and land on a carrier as long as there is no software "glitch" or any single thing unforseen by the programmers, because unlike a real pilot, the computer will not quickly learn new skills to survive. Or are they going to make the system perfect, just like ABS, or ATMs, or PC software? Good luck.

      Funny how the EuroFighter, JSF and numerous other unstable-by-design aircraft would fall out of the sky if it wasn't for the computers constantly making tiny adjustmen
      • Funny how the EuroFighter, JSF and numerous other unstable-by-design aircraft would fall out of the sky if it wasn't for the computers constantly making tiny adjustments and generally flying the plane in the first place.

        That's a misconception. They always talk about how hard/impossible a plane would be to fly if it weren't for the computers.

        Unstable in the aviation world does not have the same meaning that non-pilot types give it.

        Stable means the design causes the plane to try to return to it's or

    • Human skills are overrated. The response time of human reflexes is about 0.2s. That's just reflex. If a decision needs to be made, it'll be longer. There's no time to learn new skills on final approach. Whether you're on manual or autopilot, the only thing to do is have pre-planned procedures for every emergency, whether it's have enough reserve engine power to abort or knowing when to eject. For anything as critical as an autoland system, you'd have two or three flight computers each checking the outputs o
  • From TFA
    The simplicity of the new system was aptly demonstrated when a pilot with no previous fast jet experience, safely landed a STOVL aircraft unaided - a feat unimaginable before.
    That's pretty amazing! Wonder if similar technology will one day pave the way for the 'flying car'. Automatically controlling landing and takeoff for a domestic 'flying car' will go a long way in making it practically feasible...
  • by Blondie-Wan (559212) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @12:08PM (#12599243) Homepage
    So help me, when I saw the reference in the write-up about landing a JSF, I first thought "Jedi Starfighter." I must need help...
  • by Robber Baron (112304) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @12:14PM (#12599273) Homepage
    "Today," you takee kamikaze airprane far up into sky, over Yankee aircraft carrier, then takee kamikaze prane...down fast! crashing on the deck, killing yourself and all aboard!
    Before we have a ceremonial sake toast, are there any questions?"

    "Honorable general-san!"
    "Hai?"
    "Are you out of your fucking mind?"
  • In the underrated, underappreciated film Bridges at Toko-Ri: "Where do we get such men? They leave this ship and they do their job; then they must find this speck, lost somewhere on the sea, and when they have found it they have to land on its pitching deck. Where do we get such men?"
  • by Anonymous Coward
    You can already see the military placing a side bet in unmanned drones. What would you rather have? 100 drones or one F22? The dogfight is no longer a central aspect of warfare, ground-to-air missile technology is adequately cheap and effective enough to remove any threat from the air...and by cheap I mean you can fire ten missiles at a target (rest assured one will hit it) for the cost of one manned sortie.
    • I think it will be a combination. 4 drones slaved to 1 F-22 or AC-130 until they get to the target area. Then the mother ship assess the situation, and lets loose the drones at specific targets, or uses them as decoys for SAMs.
    • I think you are largely correct about modern militaries moving towards unmanned vehicles, but wrong about GTA missiles.

      It's a truism in war that defensive countermeasures will beat an attack. Flack, ECM, and interceptors sharply reduce the chances of losing a plane to a missile.

    • Which is purchased depends on who is in charge; the geeks or the jocks. Remember High School? Same story: UCAVs are cheap, stealthy, effective, and flown by people with good hand-eye coordination from armchairs somewhere, while fighter planes are expensive, flamboyant, effective, and require macho fighter jocks to pilot them.

      Militarily, UCAVs seem the way to go, but in practice, there's no glory, promotion, or machismo in using them. You'll have to dismantle the entire approximately 100 year old cult
      • This is certainly true. There's something about sitting in a bajillion dollar, supersonic aircraft that just gets me all horny. Seriously, though.. The Air Force may be the slowest to abopt UCAVs. The generals in charge of these types of acquisitions almost certainly have fighter experience and don't wanna see that heritage go by the wayside whereas the Army would love UCAVs.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 21, 2005 @12:31PM (#12599368)
    One-click carrier landings are currently covered under a Jeff Bezos patent.
  • by y2imm (700704) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @12:32PM (#12599370)
    Since the 60s we've been winching down our SeaKings, that is, when they're weren't falling out of the sky on their own...

    http://www.readyayeready.com/timeline/1960s/beartr ap/ [readyayeready.com]
  • Um... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ctr2sprt (574731) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @12:32PM (#12599372)
    Automated systems for conventional aircraft and big carriers has been done for a while, but getting a hovering Harrier, helicopter, or future JSF to land on a pitching deck of a smaller ship is a different matter.
    I'm not sure I follow how this is supposed to be harder than landing a jet on a carrier. I have no doubts whatsoever that it's a difficult process no matter what your vehicle, don't get me wrong. But with a VTOL aircraft you primarily worry about adjustments in one dimension (altitude). With a traditional aircraft you have to worry about two (forward velocity plus altitude). With a helicopter, for instance, as long as you "float" over the deck without hitting anything, you can land anywhere. With a jet, you have to hit a very small patch of deck to catch the tailhooks and arrest your forward motion.

    Hmm. Now that I think about it, I may be wrong. An aircraft's altitude is controlled significantly by its forward speed. (Go faster, you go higher; go slower, you go lower.) Perhaps it is mainly a one-dimensional problem. Still, I don't see how landing a jet is markedly easier than landing a helicopter.

    I guess I can summarize this post by saying, "I'm ignorant. Someone with more than a handful of hours of flight time, please enlighten me." (Yes, I have flown single-engine Cessnas, but only the aforementioned handful of hours. Takeoff but not landing, and certainly not on an aircraft carrier. My "knowledge" there is mainly from my father, who was a Navy fighter pilot in the late 1940s, so that "knowledge" doesn't even extend to jets.)

    • Re:Um... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by YrWrstNtmr (564987) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @12:48PM (#12599458)
      With a traditional jet, you have to hit a small specific area on the deck. The ship is moving forward, possibly pitching or rolling at the same time. But the ships forward speed is a small fraction of the aircrafts forward speed.

      Landing vertically, helicopter or Harrier, you have to match the forward speed of the ship (maybe 10-20 knots), compensate for pitch and roll so the deck doesn't come up and slap your landing gear off, and adjust for your own ground effect as you near the surface of the deck. Also, depending on space and where you're supposed to set down, you may be coming down not in line with the ship, but maybe trying to fly sideways at 15 knots.

      It's not necessarily easier or harder, just a different set of conditions that need to be met and compensated for.

    • Re:Um... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Xochil (542406) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @12:57PM (#12599499) Homepage
      I can't speak for VTOL, as US aircraft carriers (CVs and CVNs) do not normally carry them. Having been helo aircrew for hundreds of shipboard landings (mostly CV, but quite a few small boy decks as well), I can say you don't just float over the deck and put her down.

      On a carrier, you're directed to land on one of 5-6 circles called "spots" Spots 1-2 are generally at near the bow, 3-4 (where most HS [the type of squadron deployed on carriers] landings occur are port side aft of the angled deck, and 5-6 are near the stern.

      If you miss your spot, the air boss will personally check in to whether your wings should be pulled. ; )

      No question about it, it's easier to land a helo on a CV/CVN than a fixed winger. However, I took the comment about smaller ships to imply frigates, destroyers, crusiers, and the like. It is definitely not easy to land on one of those when the deck is pitching all over the place. The RAST systems in use by much of the HSL community helps, but send a non RAST-equipped helo to a small boy in high seas...and the pucker factor is high.

      --Mike

      The helos are always the first to take off and last to land.
      • Re:Um... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by HardCase (14757) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @01:23PM (#12599623)
        No question about it, it's easier to land a helo on a CV/CVN than a fixed winger. However, I took the comment about smaller ships to imply frigates, destroyers, crusiers, and the like. It is definitely not easy to land on one of those when the deck is pitching all over the place. The RAST systems in use by much of the HSL community helps, but send a non RAST-equipped helo to a small boy in high seas...and the pucker factor is high.

        After spending five years aboard a US Navy FFG, I have a lot of respect for the helo crew. Landing on a deck that's pitching up and down over a range of five to ten feet, plus rolling a total of 30 degrees is tough enough - but right in front of the aircraft is a solid wall of metal that would cheerfully shred the rotors. Plus, the ship is moving.

        When the SH-60B that we carried landed, the tail extended over the end of the flight deck. It's a big helicopter landing in a very small spot. And I've got to say that the five or six times that I flew, the landing was absolutely terrifying. And these guys were flying several missions a day whenever we were at sea.

        Oh, and RAST was broken half of the time, too.

        -h-
        • The Canadian Navy has pioneered a system similar to RAST for their operations in the North Atlantic. They still fly ancient sea king helicopters on tiny frigates that pitch all over the place, but they can land in higher seas than anyone else. They lower a steel cable to the deck, where is is secured to a winch. The helicopter hovers over the landing spot, trying to get into position. A ship-based crew judges when the timing is perfect and activates the winch. It slams the helo on to the deck pretty much in
    • With a helicopter, for instance, as long as you "float" over the deck without hitting anything, you can land anywhere.

      I'm guessing that if the deck is going up and down by 20 feet every few seconds then "floating" over the deck without hitting it gets somewhat tricky. I know nothing of actually landing choppers in such conditions, but I understand that being lowered from a chopper onto the deck can be very dangerous, leading to broken bones or even death (large waves really do lift ships reasonable dista
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 21, 2005 @12:34PM (#12599381)
    I'm sure I'm not the only one who got a wife who can't navigate the car into a driveway. Having an automatic parking for women would save the grass and garage from further damage.

    -1, Flamebait, but I guess you're not married.
  • huh? (Score:5, Funny)

    by ms1234 (211056) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @12:40PM (#12599418)
    The technology could also be used on helicopters, frigates and destroyers.

    When are we going to see frigates and destroyes landing on carriers?-)

  • by CHESTER COPPERPOT (864371) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @12:51PM (#12599471)
    The ability to land an aircraft automatically onto a ship will enable pilots of JSF to conduct missions by day or night and in weather conditions that would previously have not been possible.

    I've worked with the triumvirate of engineers, officers, and soldiers/airmen/sailors during trials of new military technology and I can say it'd be pretty good odds that this automatic ship landing on the STOVL aircraft wasn't tested under extreme conditions such as enemy and weather. I wonder if it was tested on high seas, massive winds or snow?

    I know /. likes to think about the "oooh wow gosh!" factor of shiny technology but a lot of the time new military technology gets tested under the easiest of conditions by risk fearing engineers. It then gets pumped up by career minded military officers (who resemble business marketers) and then left for the end users in combat to deal with the bullshit. Try repost the article when this new automatic button has been tested under extreme conditions, seen numerous deployments and used by actual end users not in a sterile environment.

    • It is my understanding that carrier planes have had this technology since the 1960s at least, but other than try it once in a while, they do not depend on it, because it is just one more thing to go wrong; if a plane is damaged, it is better to have an experienced pilot landing than some automatic gizmo which may or may not be damaged itself, and probably hasn't been programmed to deal with a damaged plane. And the pilot won't get that experience except by doing it all the time.

      Some day a computerized sys
    • ...wasn't tested under extreme conditions...

      No, but this was the first test. Let them work on it and let it mature for a while.

    • So what's your opinion on the collision avoidance system that was tested a few years back on (IIRC) an F/A 18?

      The one that the test pilot went into a hands free vertical dive at over 400mph? To see if the computer would indeed pull away at the very last possible moment (e.g. too late for said pilot to save his own ass)?

      Yeah, I recal something like a snap-roll and a better than 9.5G pull out.

      Autopilots get the hell tested out of them. Not because it saves human lives (hahahahhaa.... sorry), but because pl
      • Autopilots get the hell tested out of them. Not because it saves human lives (hahahahhaa.... sorry), but because planes are really expensive -- and in this case, so is whatever it is landing on.

        The per-pilot cost is actually in the range of the cost of their airplane, if not higher.

        Compare:
        1. Purchase cost of airplane
        2. Maintenance cost of airplane

        with

        1. Pilot's salary
        2. training
        3. Insurance
        4. housing
        5. Training wash-outs
        6. Recruitment
        7. and
        8. Personnel support

        And, oddly enough, a rifleman's person-cost and equipm

  • My Jock (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    As swashbuckling as fighter jocks can be (I've known a few) if an automated landing system proved near perfect there would be quite a few who would be happy to sign up for it.

    Even the most self assured pilots hate landing (read: controlled crash-landing) on carriers at night in adverse conditions. Scares the crap out of them.

    But there would be some resistance. As there are people who are better coders than others there are pilots who are better at landing on an aircraft carrier than others. As a matter of
    • Re:My Jock (Score:3, Insightful)

      The pilots will always be required to do some manual traps. They cannot become dependent on an automated system. They must also learn to deal with stress and fear, night carrier traps are useful there. IIRC some pilots were wired for telemetry during Vietnam and the Navy found that night carrier traps were more frightening than braving Hanoii's air defense.

      Manual night carrier traps are very useful to the Navy. When they have a pilot who will repeatedly do them they know they can point at pretty much any
  • by moviepig.com (745183) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @01:04PM (#12599533) Homepage
    ...getting a hovering Harrier, helicopter, or future JSF to land on a pitching deck...

    A major aid to this advance was the recent development of industrial-strength flypaper...

  • Don't use big words if you don't know what they mean [answers.com].
  • by Phaid (938) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @01:23PM (#12599622) Homepage
    Despite all the skepticism being bandied about military technology on this site, automated carrier landings are not new. The first fully automated landing on an aircraft carrier took place on Aug. 12, 1957, when an F3D Skyknight was landed on USS Antietam (CVA 36) at sea off Pensacola, Fla., by the Automatic Carrier Landing System (ACLS). That's right, over 40 years ago. That system is still in wide use today, and is only now slowly being replaced by the JPALS (Joint Precision Approach and Landing System) system which uses GPS instead of the radar used by ACLS.

    The QinetiQ system described in the article (which is itself a component of JPALS) is remarkable in that it automates vertical landings. I'm kind of uncertain as to why that had never been done before, though I think it has more to do with the much lower level of interest, and therefore funding, than because of any technical challenge.
  • Photoshopped logo? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by KFury (19522) * on Saturday May 21, 2005 @01:29PM (#12599673) Homepage
    Did anyone else notice that the QinetiQ logo 'painted' on the body of the fighter appears to be just a poor photoshop job? Looks like their logo wasn't on the aircraft (or at least visible in this shot) so they decided to slap one on after the fact.

    High-res photo [qinetiq.com] and a zoomed close-up [fury.com]
  • by Animats (122034) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @01:45PM (#12599748) Homepage
    That makes sense for a Harrier. The Harrier family is one of the very few successful VTOL aircraft, with a 30+ year history. It's a unique aircraft, with four vectored thrust nozzles and a reaction jet control system for use in hover. Stabilizing the beast has always been tough. It has the highest crash rate of all US military aircraft.

    The basic problem is that a Harrier has more major flight controls than the pilot has hands. There's a nozzle angle control and a throttle control, along with the usual stick and rudder pedals. VTOL operation requires coordinated operation of the nozzle and throttle controls. Both have significant lag. That's a tough control problem, worse than a helicopter.

    Everything has been tried. Better pilot training. New flying approaches. Simulator training. A redesign (the Harrier II). Stability augmentation systems. Avoiding VTOL whenever possible. Harriers still crash a lot. (The Harrier has a good ejection system, so the pilots usually survive.)

    One of the stability augmentation systems was the VAAC Harrier Study [mathworks.com]. This was an experimental effort to use computer control to get the three inputs that affect longitudinal stability (stick, throttle, and nozzle angle) down to two. This was supposedly successful but was not deployed.

    This new thing seems to be a further step in that direction.

  • Last time I checked, this feature worked just fine in the game carrier command.

    Nothing new to see here, move along.
  • SNC did it first (Score:3, Interesting)

    by dmh20002 (637819) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @03:05PM (#12600234)
    Sierra Nevada Corporation [sncorp.com] designed and built the system that performed the first automatic landings of VTOL and fixed wing UAV's on small ships in the mid 1990's. The VTOL UAV was the Bombardier CL-327 and the fixed wing UAV was the IAI Pioneer. See the videos [sncorp.com]. I know because I was part of the team. The level of difficulty is exactly the same as landing a manned aircraft (maybe more because there is no pilot to take over in the event of problems). We built the 35ghz tracking radar system and designed and implemented all the autoland algorithms including the special purpose autopilot code (it has to be much higher gain than a normal autopilot) and the ship motion stabilization.
    A variant of this system is autolanding UAV's all over Iraq as we speak.
  • by melted (227442) on Saturday May 21, 2005 @03:44PM (#12600445) Homepage
    Except you didn't even have to press any buttons. The thing flew and landed all by itself.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buran [wikipedia.org]
  • to commercial aircraft. Commercial craft has been auto landing for 30 years.
  • wow, if an aircraft carrier is needed to make Java Server Faces work, they should just ditch the damn thing.

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