Research Communications

Safer Skies 

Graduate Student Spotlight: Tony Adami

April 28, 2011

Conventional autopilots have been used in military aircraft and commercial airliners for decades, but they have their limitations. Most systems—which actually require pilot intervention—guide the aircraft by plotting points along their course and flying from point to point until they arrive at the final destination. If a pilot loses control of the aircraft, conventional autopilots often aren’t able to help.

Tony Adami, an engineering graduate student and Avionics Engineering Center research engineer, and Professor J. Jim Zhu are designing a new and improved autopilot controller that could dramatically reduce the cost of this technology and increase the safety of flying airplanes. 


Their design, called Trajectory Linearization Control could be used in aircraft ranging from unmanned air vehicles to commercial passenger flights. It can guide an aircraft along a line directly from point A to B using sensors to monitor the actual flight path, and can make adjustments without human intervention, explains Adami, one of several graduate students who has helped realize Zhu’s vision.

The new autopilot could be especially useful for pilots of general aviation aircraft, which have a higher accident fatality rate compared to commercial airlines. Many can’t afford today’s autopilot systems, which can make these pilots more prone to fatigue during long flights and increase the risk of mistakes.

“Our autopilot will be affordable and functional in virtually any flight condition, and can aid a pilot when he needs it most,” Adami says, explaining that it can provide increased agility and the ability to recover from overcorrections.

The student, who plans to test the controller this spring in an unmanned airplane, says that the technology could help the Federal Aviation Administration develop the next generation of airspace, which would feature aircraft that can fly closer together and land more frequently.

 “If we present the FAA with a technology that can guide an aircraft precisely along a given path,” he says, “that’s going to make it much safer and easier.”

By Katie Brandt

This story will appear in the spring/summer 2011 issue of Perspectives magazine.