A Brief History of Autopilot

    An autopilot is a device or a hardware-software complex that can drive a vehicle entrusted to it along a given path. The history of the autopilot began with maintaining a certain flight course, but over time, the development of technology has made it possible to make planes that can land and take off themselves, trains that travel without the participation of a driver, and robotic cars, which can soon become commonplace on public roads.

    Frame from the movie "Airplane"


    The first development in the field of automation of aircraft control was made in the USA in 1912 by Sperry Corporation. The autopilot helped to automatically maintain the course of the flight and stabilize the roll. A hydraulic drive with a block receiving signals from a gyrocopus and an altimeter was connected with elevators and controls. The device was called a “gyroscopic stabilizing device”, it was first installed on a Curtiss C-2 aircraft and was shown at an exhibition in France on June 18, 1914.

    As part of the demonstration during the flight, both pilots crawled out onto the wings of the aircraft to show the ability of the aircraft and continue the flight without manual control.

    In the USSR, the topic of autopilots showed great interest, as evidenced by the publication "Fundamentals of the theory of automatic piloting and autopilots. Digest of articles". The book includes translated articles "The General Theory of Automatic Regulation", "Siemens Autopilot for Aircraft", "Sperry Gyro Pilot" and others, describes the principles of automatic piloting and the design of autopilots. You can familiarize yourself with the book on one well-known resource, which they have been trying to block for the second month in Russia.

    The use of autopilot is necessary not only to reduce the load on a living person during control, but also to control torpedoes and missiles when there is no pilot and cannot be inside them (there is an exception - a type of Japanese torpedo called kaiten that was controlled by suicide bombers) .


    In 1947, the American military transport aircraft Douglas C-54 Skymaster, built on the basis of the passenger DC-4, flew across the Atlantic Ocean under the control of an autopilot. Both takeoff and landing were carried out automatically.

    Douglas C-54

    The meaning of autopilot is to ensure that the system supports the correct orientation of the device. In the case of an airplane, spatial orientation is determined by three angles. This is the pitch angle - the angle between the longitudinal axis of the aircraft and the horizontal plane, the yaw angle - the angle of rotation of the body in the horizontal plane, and the angle of heel - it occurs when the plane rotates around the longitudinal axis.

    To maintain orientation, it is necessary to determine it, and the gyroscope helped in this. The American pilot Elmer Sperry used it to first just stabilize the plane, and then create an autopilot in the early 1920s. If the first autopilot could maintain the specified flight mode, then the subsequent systems controlled the rudders and engines of the aircraft and could not only fly without the participation of the pilot, but also take off and land.

    Pitch, yaw and roll

    A great example of an early autopilot is the German V-2 long-range ballistic missile, which the Wehrmacht adopted at the end of World War II. The rocket took off vertically, after which an autonomous gyroscopic control system came into action.


    But excessive enthusiasm for autopilot led to the fact that pilots of civil aviation in the United States began to make mistakes with manual control. They rely too much on automation , and as a result of research they show unsatisfactory results of testing flight skills. This leads to human casualties. The officers of the US Navy warships have a similar problem with automation; they use GPS, but few of the cadets can handle a sextant.

    And, of course, there are a huge number of multicopter and drones of other types that are able to work both under the control of a pilot-operator, and independently and when interacting with other devices .

    Rail transport

    In 1967, the London Victoria Line was opened in the British capital. This was the first line on which trains were controlled using the Automatic Train Operation system. After that, ATO technology is developed so that trains can travel absolutely without the participation of live drivers in the cab or employees on board.

    Queen Elizabeth in a train on the London Victoria Line, 1969.

    Four levels of “development” of automated systems for rail transport are shared. One of the simplest systems is ATO in the London Underground, and the most complex is in the Copenhagen metro, where trains move constantly without drivers, they open and close doors themselves, quickly respond in emergency cases to, for example, people on rails. The driver’s cab is not at all, and passengers observe the movement through the windshield. The control center employs only five operators per shift, who can intervene in emergency situations, but for the most part control the performance of the systems. Automation made it possible to switch to a round-the-clock mode of operation, and the metro closes one night six times a year for major repairs. Three automatic trains will be launched


    in Moscow in 2016on the Koltsevaya metro line. The system will send trains from the station after the drivers close the doors and drive the train on the stage in accordance with the schedule. It is important to ensure the safety of not only passengers, but also people who illegally penetrate the tunnels of the Moscow metro - about eight hundred such cases occur during the year, although thanks to the introduction of an intelligent protection system that tracks outsiders, the number of such cases decreases. In any case, a live driver will be needed in the cab.


    The trend of several years in a row are unmanned vehicles. It all started much earlier, with the creation of the first cruise control, which is also called "autospeed" and "autodrive". All that he does is to maintain a constant speed of the car, adding gas while reducing speed and decreasing when increasing, independently slows down on the slopes. Such systems began to be massively installed on cars in the 1970s in the United States - due to the presence of long highways in the country.

    They were invented before - in the 1940-1950s in the same states, American Motors. Their speed control unit was designed for large cars with automatic transmission. For the first time in Russia, the GAZ-21 was equipped with such a system in 1956. "Manual gas" worked like this: during the movement it was necessary to extend the handle, after which you can remove your foot from the gas pedal.


    Adaptive cruise control maintains a variable speed, adjusting to the average speed in the stream and constantly observing the distance between the vehicle and the vehicle in front. For the first time, these systems began to be installed in the late 1990s by Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Toyota . An adaptive system requires good ABS and ESP, otherwise the system will not work.

    Many companies are now continuing to improve existing technologies with the goal of making fully autonomous cars . In 2011, Google lobbied Nevada law to allow unmanned vehicles to be used on public roads. In May 2012, the company received a license for drones in Nevada, and in September of that year, California authorities legalized autopilot cars. Such cars, in theory, can save hundreds of billions of dollars a year , but not everyone sees the future in unmanned vehicles - for example, the head of the Lyft taxi reservation service disavows such a future .

    In December 2014, Google introduced the first finished version of the car. Prior to this, the company showed a layout with idle headlights. Google is confident that robomobiles will appear on the roads in two to five years .


    In addition to Google, a number of major automakers are working on unmanned vehicles. For example, the Swedish Gothenburg administration ordered a hundred unmanned vehicles from Volvo Cars by 2017 in the amount of 56.3 million euros. Unmanned taxis in the country plan to launch the Japanese authorities. Nissan wants to start selling unmanned cars by 2020. Audi and Toyota already have prototypes, Tesla has already implemented the autopilot function in the Model S , and Ford has begun to teach its cars how to ride in the snow without a driver.

    To check the orientation of the vehicle in space, observe signs and determine the participants in the traffic, an autonomous vehicle uses a lot of incoming information. This is the data from the installed lidar - Ford has four of them at once, information from cameras and various sensors. An autonomous car computer was developed by Nvidia .


    BMW, Honda, Volkswagen, Tesla and GM are working together with Mobileye - this version of the autopilot uses mobile Internet and sensors that are already installed on many cars. Mobileye develops security systems to prevent collisions. It remains only to teach unmanned vehicles to solve ethical issues - for example, how to behave when an accident with human casualties is inevitable, who should be sacrificed.

    Kamaz is now working on an unmanned truck capable of moving along Russian roads and overcoming, having previously recognized, unexpected breaks and holes in the asphalt . While there are many car manufacturers working with passenger cars, few do trucks.


    This is how the Summon function works in a Tesla Model S. It is interesting how convenient it is to “call” a car to load purchases in the Ikea loading area when developing technology in the future.

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