Wise, Kevin A. Boeing Phantom Works, The Boeing Company, St. Louis, Missouri.
Last reviewed:November 2019
- Basic concepts
- Modern control theory
- Helicopter and VTOL autopilots
- Missile autopilots
- Related Primary Literature
- Additional Reading
An automatic means for steering an aircraft, ship, or other vehicle. The terminology means to automatically (autonomously) control a mode of the vehicle, usually its trajectory. Examples include altitude, speed, heading, accelerations, body rates, and attitude angles. The first aircraft autopilots were developed in the 1890s for experimental crewless aircraft, which were under development by Samuel Langley to prevent pilot injury. (Langley's Aerodrome Number 5 flew in 1896.) As air travel proliferated in the early 1900s, the primary use of an autopilot, or automatic pilot, was to provide pilot relief during cruise modes. In crewless aircraft and missiles, autopilots provide inner-loop control over the flight, receiving their commands from outer-loop guidance algorithms, which steer the vehicle, providing trajectory control. Autopilots now perform functions more rapidly and with greater precision than the human pilot. In many cases they are required to augment the stability of the vehicle. The functions, designs, and uses of autopilots vary widely depending on the type of vehicle. In addition to controlling various types of aircraft and spacecraft, autopilots are used to control ships or sea-based vehicles and in some cases land-based vehicles. In virtually all autopilot applications, a state of the vehicle is sensed, this state is compared to a commanded or desired value which will steer the vehicle, and the error is regulated. In cases where the vehicle's dynamics are unstable, the autopilot stabilizes the dynamics in addition to tracking guidance commands. This article discusses autopilots used in air vehicles.
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