Systems to provide improved tactile feedback to aircraft pilots are being developed to help the pilots maintain harmony between their control actions and the positions of aircraft control surfaces, thereby helping to prevent loss of control. A system of this type, denoted a loss-of-control-inhibitor system (LOCIS) can be implemented as a relatively simple addition to almost any pre-existing flight-control system. The LOCIS concept offers at least a partial solution to the problem of (1) keeping a pilot aware of the state of the control system and the aircraft and (2) maintaining sufficient control under conditions that, as described below, have been known to lead to loss of control.

Current commercial aircraft exhibit uneven responses of primary flight-control surfaces to aggressive pilot control commands, leading to deterioration of pilots' ability to control their aircraft. In severe cases, this phenomenon can result in loss of control and consequent loss of aircraft. For an older aircraft equipped with a purely mechanical control system, the loss of harmony between a pilot's command action and the control- surface response can be attributed to compliance in the control system (caused, for example, by stretching of control cables, flexing of push rods, or servo-valve distortion). In a newer aircraft equipped with a fly-by-wire control system, the major contributions to loss of harmony between the pilot and the control surfaces are delays attributable to computer cycle time, control shaping, filtering, aliasing, servo-valve distortion, and actuator rate limiting. In addition, a fly-by-wire control system provides no tactile feedback that would enable the pilot to sense such features of the control state as surface flutter, surface jam, position limiting, actuator rate limiting, and control limiting imposed by the aircraft operational envelope.

This Simplified Block Diagram represents a LOCIS added to a flight-control system that includes a single control surface.

Hence, for example, when a pilot is involved in aggressive "closed-loop" maneuvering, as when encountering a wake-vortex upset on final landing approach, the control-surface delay can lead to loss of control. Aggressive piloting can be triggered and exacerbated by control-system anomalies, which the pilot cannot diagnose because of the lack of symptoms caused by the absence of feedback through the controls. The purpose served by a LOCIS is to counteract these adverse effects by providing real-time feedback that notifies the pilot that the aircraft is tending to lag the pilot's commands.

A LOCIS (see figure) includes cockpit control input-position sensors, control surface output-position sensors, variable dampers (for example, shock absorbers containing magneto-rheological fluids such that the damping forces can be varied within times of the order of milliseconds by varying applied magnetic fields) attached to the cockpit control levers, electromagnet coils to apply the magnetic fields, and feedback control circuits to drive the electromagnet coils. The feedback control gains are chosen so that the current applied to each electromagnet coil results in a damping force that increases in a suitable nonlinear manner (e.g., exponentially) with the difference between the actual and commanded positions of the affected control surface. The increasing damping force both alerts the pilot to the onset of a potentially dangerous situation and resists the pilot's effort to command a control surface to change position at an excessive rate.

This work was done by Ralph C. A'Harrah of NASA Headquarters.

This invention is owned by NASA, and a patent application has been filed. Inquiries concerning nonexclusive or exclusive license for its commercial development should be addressed to

the Patent Counsel
Langley Research Center
at (757) 864-3521.

Refer to LAR-16566.

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the December, 2007 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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