‘The greatest achievement will be the lives saved’

Garmin Autoland is the world’s first certified autonomous system designed to activate during an emergency, to safely fly and to land an aircraft without intervention. This year it won the Robert J Collier Trophy. Words: Mike Stones

GARMIN RECENTLY JOINED aviation greats Orville Wright, NASA, Neil Armstrong and others in winning the coveted Robert J Collier Trophy for aerial innovation. But the firm’s greatest achievement will be “the lives saved and families reunited by Autoland in the future,” says the technology company.

Part of the company’s Autonomi range of autonomous safety technologies, 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. The system is designed to save lives when pilots become either incapacitated or overwhelmed by a range of flight problems, including bad weather.

Garmin’s Conor McDougall: The whole team is delighted to have landed the Robert J Collier Trophy.

The red button spells safety. Pressing Garmin Autoland activates the system that automatically flies, navigates and lands the aircraft.

The red button spells safety. Pressing Garmin Autoland activates the system that automatically flies, navigates and lands the aircraft.

The awarding organisation – the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) – says that while rare, pilot incapacitation accidents, and others like them, are almost always fatal. Its president and CEO Greg Principato told CJI the Garmin Autoland is “a real game changer”, which will make a major contribution to improving general aviation safety.

Garmin’s Conor McDougall explained to CJI what winning the trophy meant to the company and how the system seeks to save lives during airborne emergencies.

CJI: What’s the significance of Autoland winning the Robert J Collier Trophy?

McDougall: For everyone at Garmin, this is a tremendous honour and, honestly, it still feels a bit surreal. To have our name etched in history among some of the greatest accomplishments in aviation is humbling. I think one of the most important things to recognise is the more than a decade of hard work from the Garmin team dedicated to making this life-saving technology a reality. The collaboration with OEM partners, regulatory agencies, and the countless others involved was also a huge part of bringing this life-saving technology to market. Autoland began as a project to provide a solution to a problem that was heart-breaking to continue witnessing. Our team realised that we could do something to save lives and avoid these horrible tragedies and felt it was our responsibility to do so. We are so grateful to receive this prestigious award, but it was never the motivation when we had the initial Autoland vision. The greatest achievement will be the lives saved and families reunited by Autoland in the future.

CJI: How does it feel to rank alongside prestigious winners such as Orville Wright, William Lear and NASA?

McDougall: You look at names like Orville Wright, William Lear, NASA, Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 Team, Cirrus Aircraft for the Vision Jet and so many others, and it really brings this historic accomplishment full circle. For more than a century, the Collier Trophy has represented the most significant milestones in aviation – achievements that truly shaped the industry. We are so proud to have Autoland among those great accomplishments and believe that it too will change the industry by making aviation safer.

CJI: How does the Autoland system work to protect the safety of crew and passengers?

McDougall: The goal of Autoland was to deliver peace of mind to pilots and their passengers by providing an alternative in the unlikely scenario of pilot incapacitation or similar emergency where the pilot is suddenly unable to act as pilot-in-command. The pilot can choose to use Autoland if they are suddenly feeling unwell on a flight by themselves or with passengers. The passengers can opt to activate if they notice the pilot is unwell, or the avionics can automatically activate Autoland if certain conditions are met. After activation, Autoland will then select a nearby suitable airport, navigate to it while avoiding terrain and adverse weather, broadcast the emergency over the radio and on the transponder, configure the aircraft as appropriate for the phase of flight and perform a safe landing on the best available runway at the selected airport. Autoland also informs the passengers what’s going on using plain-language text and simplified displays throughout the emergency.

“Autoland informs passengers what is going on using plain-language text.”

Safe in the skies: Whatever the weather or pilot health. Piper’s M600 is one of three aircraft approved to use the Garmin Autoland system.

CJI: How long has the project taken to develop and when was it first launched?

McDougall: Garmin began working on Autoland about 10 years ago, with significant progress starting in 2014. Garmin Autoland announced in late 2019 and first certified on the Piper M600/SLS in May 2020, with the Daher TB 940 and Cirrus Vision Jet following shortly thereafter.

CJI: What has been the industry’s reaction, including OEMs, to Autoland?

McDougall: The reaction throughout the industry has been extremely positive; Autoland has been recognised with several awards and accolades. It’s exciting to hear from our OEM partners interested in equipping Autoland to their aircraft – both when we first introduced the concept to them and since we’ve had our first certifications. From when they first heard of Autoland, they were absolutely motivated to have it on their aircraft.

CJI: How have passengers reacted to the technology?

McDougall: The passenger reaction to Autoland has been fantastic. With Autoland-equipped aircraft, the passenger just needs to know how to activate the system (push the button) and that they are able to speak with ATC if they would like on 121.5 MHz. There’s a simple walkie-talkie interface for the passenger to push and hold while they speak; this avoids the need for the passenger to find the push-to-talk on the controls. When Autoland has been activated, we simplify information such as aircraft speed, destination airport in plain language, time to destination in minutes, and even tell the passengers to wait until the aircraft comes to a stop on the runway – with the engine automatically shutting down – before exiting the aircraft. Autoland is there to help the passenger navigate a very stressful situation. Because of this, pilots are choosing to buy an aircraft equipped with Autoland for their peace of mind, but even more often for the peace of mind and safety of their passengers.

The central cockpit display warns both crew and passengers the safety system is fully activated.

CJI: You have started with the Piper M600, the Daher TBM940 and the Cirrus Vision Jet. What aircraft will be next? And how difficult is it to adapt the system to different aircraft?

McDougall: We can’t share which other OEMs are working on introducing Autoland on their aircraft, but we can share that Garmin is extremely motivated to see Autoland permeate the market at all levels – both into larger aircraft and smaller aircraft. Adapting Autoland to different aircraft required making additions such as the manual Autoland engagement button, adding the emergency braking system, among others. In addition, Autoland requires autothrottle capability and we needed to develop that technology for each specific aircraft.

CJI: Can you take us through the certification process?

McDougall: Certification of Autoland involves demonstrating each subsystem – flap extension, gear extension, that sort of thing – will operate appropriately when Autoland is active and not operate when Autoland is not active. This is accomplished through analysis, ground testing and flight testing. The flight testing typically looks at each subsystem individually and in combinations to ensure everything works properly at the right time. For the initial certification projects, the OEMs were required by the regulators to demonstrate a full ‘talk and squawk’ Autoland where the avionics fully declared an emergency by setting the transponder to [emergency code] 7700 and broadcasting automatic messages on the appropriate frequencies at a pre-arranged location with ATC aware of the tests.

No action required. The central display reassures crew and passengers that the Garmin Autoland system is about to bring their aircraft to a safe landing without needing their intervention.

The other two aircraft are the Daher TBM940 (pictured) and Piper’s M600.

The Cirrus Vision Jet is the only jet approved to use the Garmin Autoland system.

The other two aircraft are the Daher TBM940 (pictured) and Piper’s M600.

The Cirrus Vision Jet is the only jet approved to use the Garmin Autoland system.

CJI: How does Autoland fit into the Autonomi range of flight technologies?

McDougall: Garmin has had features like Electronic Stability and Protection (ESP) and Emergency Descent Mode (EDM) in the field for many years, but the introduction of Autoland gave Garmin the opportunity to look at these existing autonomous technologies and give them a family name. Most OEMs equip all the Autonomi features, which is great and gives pilots multiple features to support them in various phases of flight. Since Autoland’s announcement and certifications, Garmin has added other autonomous technologies to the Autonomi family. These include innovations such as Smart Rudder Bias. You will see more safety-enhancing autonomous technologies coming from the Autonomi family in the future.

CJI: What else should we know about Autoland and the Autonomi range?

McDougall: While a star member of the Autonomi family, Autoland really builds on the existing technologies developed over the years. Autoland would not exist had it not been for the building blocks that came before it – a digital autopilot, text-to-speech, ESP, EDM, datalink weather, radar altimeters, autothrottle (including support for non-FADEC aircraft), and many other elements.

CJI Connect

Conor McDougall Garmin [email protected]

Greg Principato National Aeronautic Association, President and CEO [email protected]

Mike Stones, Group editor, Corporate Jet Investor

Mike Stones, Group editor, Corporate Jet Investor