How Does the Aircraft Autopilot System Work?

Vision-based control of rotary and fixed-wing aircraft is the primary way in which pilots navigate aerial vehicles. To fly an aircraft reliably, without the need for human intervention, there is another system in place. The automatic flight control system (AFCS) is part of an aircraft’s avionics that includes electronics for communications, navigation, collision avoidance, and weather.

The original idea behind the AFCS was to provide pilot relief during difficult stages of flight, such as high-altitude cruising. More than that, advanced autopilots can even carry out highly precise maneuvers like those required during zero visibility conditions. To better understand the AFCS, we will provide an overview of how it works.

Essentially, the AFCS is a software that runs on an operating system. Often called the autopilot for short, the AFCS takes flight data as inputs from sensors like the pitot tube and gyro, and it processes them into outputs like takeoff, landing, altitude hold, and other maneuvers. Depending on the system, the autopilot can control the elevators, the rudder, and the ailerons as well.

Basic “single axis” autopilots control only one piece of equipment, with the ailerons being the most common as they keep the aircraft leveled. Meanwhile, more advanced two- or three-axis autopilots have access to more flight controls. Today, autopilots take advantage of a high-speed processor to control aircraft.

Despite advancements in the technology used for autopilots, using a gyroscope and altitude indicator remains the fundamental basis of their operation, albeit with more accuracy. Other aircraft systems that are a part of the function of autopilots include compasses, airspeed indicators, accelerometers, and GPS. Equipped with such functions, the autopilot is capable of not only keeping a straight, leveled parth, but carrying out an entire flight plan.

By taking data from all the various inputs, the autopilot ensures that the aircraft maintains the correct pitch, speed, heading, and altitude. For slight adjustments, signals are sent to servomechanism units that use either motors or hydraulics to adjust the aircraft’s control surfaces. This creates a feedback loop that feeds off of the data gathered by the autopilot and makes changes accordingly.

While autopilots have the capacity to perform complex maneuvers, they are generally only utilized during the cruise stage of flight. Where there is poor visibility, they can land a plane with ease. Recently, Airbus demonstrated that the autopilot can be used during takeoff as well. However, all takeoffs are still carried out manually.

Put simply, the autopilot system can be compared to cruise control on a car. While it may be useful for keeping a constant speed, it cannot help you back out of your garage or park in a space. That being said, pilots are still responsible for controlling an aircraft by providing the proper inputs. 

NSN Sourcing is a leading supplier of autopilot systems from top global manufacturers on our Approved Vendor List (AVL). With countless ready-to-purchase options, customers can easily meet rigid time constraints and strict budget parameters. As our network of distribution centers spans across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, we are equipped to provide expedited shipping services to even our most remote customers.

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