With the advent of fly-by-wire aircraft control systems, the pilot’s ability to "feel" aircraft performance through the stick was lost. And, particularly important to the civilian market, it was no longer possible for pilot’s and co-pilot's controls to be linked and for each to realize from the movement of the control in his hands what inputs his colleague was making.
Active inceptors solve this problem by replacing the mechanical limits, resistance and responses built in to conventional (or passive) fly-by-wire controls with programmable, and therefore variable and customizable, electronic responses. (The term “inceptor” is preferred to “stick” as it encompasses the electronics elements as well as the manual control; also, the technology applies not just to control columns for fixed-wing aircraft but to collectives and cyclics in helicopters.)
“This technology provides tactile feedback,” explains Adam Taylor, BAE’s director of advanced inceptors. “The feel of the stick changes in real time, and with that we can cue the pilot. Rather than looking down at his instruments he can concentrate on what he’s doing. It improves carefree handling and improves pilot performance by reducing his workload.”
BAE’s active inceptor work began on the research program that led to the development of the F-35: the company provided active-inceptor systems for both the X-32 and X-35 prototypes. Since then, as Taylor points out, BAE has “won every active-stick procurement that's been let worldwide”—a total of nine contracts. The technology is on the F-35, KAI's T-50 Golden Eagle trainer, and a number of helicopter platforms.
Active inceptors are about to transition to the civil space too. BAE are under contract with Embraer for active sticks on the KC-390, which is going through a joint military and civil certification program. In theory the civil active inceptor can be retrofitted to any fly-by-wire platform, though certification would need to be achieved on a case-by-case basis.
The company also won another civil contract in 2010 but is unable to reveal details of the client. All Taylor will say is: “It’s a new aircraft being developed by an OEM that they have yet to launch into the marketplace. It has a couple of new technologies on it, one of which is active sticks. Their rationale for not going public is because they see it as a differentiating technology on their aircraft.”
A display including the F-35 inceptor as well as some of BAE's range of civil-application active sticks is on show at 3/AS6-23.