- As the industry gears up for flying taxis and autonomous passenger drones, aerospace engineers are radically rethinking how to design aircraft.
- We caught up with an executive at Honeywell Aerospace, which designs electronic and mechanical parts for nearly every aspect of a plane’s control system, to learn more.
- Carl Esposito, head of electronics at the company, says they’ve hired physiologists to study how humans react to alerts and commands — and even puts pilots onto a shaker table to see how the changes work in practice.
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Planes haven’t evolved much in the past half-century, but that’s starting to change.
As battery technology improves and lightweight aircraft become more feasible, companies like Uber are looking to cash in on a burgeoning idea: urban air mobility.
Nothing’s certain yet what that might actually look like, of course. Even the most advanced electric drones — the kind that can take off vertically before flying passengers horizontally to their airport connection — have only flown for about a minute on their longest tests.
Still, the promise of a world where airports are easier to reach hasn’t stopped a plethora of prototypes, mockups, models and designs from flooding the internet in anticipation. It’s also starting to influence how engineers at the companies behind the technology that powers most every element of aircraft to look to the future as well.
“We supply pretty much everything the pilot touches or interacts with: the displays. control panel knobs, buttons to control and operate the aircraft and all of the computers and software that handle flight information and safety systems.” Carl Esposito, head of electronics at Honeywell Aviation, said in an interview at Uber’s Elevate summit in June, where hundreds of aerospace professionals gathered to discuss the new prospects of urban air travel.
“So this urban air phenomenon lets us take that heritage of electronics and mechanical systems into a completely knew marketplace that didn’t exist before,” he continued. “I talk about that with our new and young engineers all the time: you’re on the ground floor of a revolution in transportation.”
Honeywell, which has been in the aerospace business since World War II in addition to its iconic home thermostats and other home and building business lines, has inked a number of deals with manufacturers of Evtol’s (electric, vertical takeoff and landing)) aircraft, including Uber. Esposito says those agreements include everything from precision navigation — that is, getting around more accurately without a traditional GPS — to fly-by-wire controls for cockpits, actuators for rotors and wings, and even electro-mechanical power generators.
Then there’s the question of how all of these controls will look and feel for pilots — for as long as they’re needed until autonomous flying taxis take over, at least.
“We spend a lot of human factors and user experience around how to architect the flight deck, presenting the right kind of information to the pilots currently and the new pilots who will be entering aviation in the future,” Esposito said. “We bring in student pilots to look at our concepts in the lab, and we actually have physiologists on staff that study human reaction to stress and sound and motion.”
And the tests don’t stop there, either. It gets even more intense:
“We have a shaker table that we put test subjects on and we can expose them to things like different light, sound, lots of vibrations, and measure their heart rate and where they look,” he said. “We do a lot of thinking about presenting information very simply to the pilot.”
“It’s about presenting the right information at the right time,” Esposito said.
SEE ALSO: Uber’s first passenger drone is a helicopter-plane hybrid that can carry passengers across cities at 150 mph
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