New flight-control software meant to help aircraft “stick” aircraft carrier landings more cleanly could lead to major aircraft redesigns that would save costs, reduce wear and tear on future aircraft and improve their overall performance, according to the Office of Naval Research (ONR), which has been spearheading the technology’s development.

A new algorithm embedded in the flight control software augments the landing approach, ONR says. Coupled with an experimental shipboard light system called a Bedford Array and accompanying cockpit heads-up display symbols, the software ties the movement of the pilot’s control stick directly to the aircraft’s flight path. Instead of constantly adjusting the plane’s trajectory indirectly through attitude changes, the pilot maneuvers the aircraft to project a dotted green line in the heads-up display over a target light shining in the landing area.

“It is almost like a video game,” says James “Buddy” Denham, the senior engineer who has been leading the research and development efforts at Naval Air Systems Command. “You’re tracking a shipboard stabilized visual target with a flight path reference, and the airplane knows what it needs to do to stay there.”

ONR funded the project as part of its focus on sea-based aviation, one of five Navy and Marine Corps research areas recently designated as a national naval responsibility.

“We don’t believe it would be difficult at all to get improvement from existing aircraft,” Michael Deitchman, deputy chief of naval research for naval air warfare and weapons, told Aviation Week Intelligence Network (AWIN).

Navy and Marine Corps aviators conducting carrier landings today line up with a moving flight deck in a complicated process, ONR notes. The pilots must constantly adjust their speed and manipulate the aircraft’s flight control surfaces – ailerons, rudders and elevators – to maintain the proper glide path and alignment to the flight deck for an arrested landing.

Throughout their approach, pilots eye a set of lights-known on the left side of the ship to see whether they are coming in too high or too low.

“The precision that we can bring to carrier landings in the future will be substantial,” Deitchman said. “The flight control algorithm has the potential to alter the next 50 years of how pilots land on carrier decks.”

While the technology certainly would improve carrier landing safety and efficiency, the new software could also have long-ranging impacts on life-cycle costs and perhaps even aircraft design for Navy manned and unmanned aircraft, Deitchman says.

For example, the new software could help reduce the amount of training that pilots need to stick aircraft landings – a major cost savings.

More predictive

More precise carrier landings will help make the whole operation more predictive, he says. That in turn could help reduce the load on aircraft and perhaps even change certain aircraft requirements.

Reducing aircraft weight, he notes, could help reduce maintenance and life-cycle costs.

But the larger impact could be in next-generation aircraft. Depending on the effectiveness of the flight-control software and lessons learned from its use, aircraft designers could rethink flight controls and related equipment.

“We could start with a clean sheet of paper on aircraft design,” Deitchman says.

ONR plans to put the technology into an X-47B surrogate for “ride along” at-sea evaluations in fiscal 2012 and is looking to start flight tests in fiscal 2015.