Taxiing is the term used for an aircraft manoeuvring on the ground, under its own power, prior to take-off or after landing until it is parked. Whilst taxiing, an airline pilot primarily uses a hand-wheel (commonly known as a tiller) to steer the aircraft to the left or to the right. Thrust from the engines is used to provide forward movement whilst wheel-mounted brakes are used to slow down or stop the aircraft. At present, the pilot manipulates these multiple controls based on visual cues, experience and judgement. It must be appreciated that controlling an aircraft using these multiple controls, in the manner just described, is not always easy, especially when taxiing in low visibility conditions. For this reason, new technological aids are required to assist the pilot during the taxi phase of flight.
The Institute of Aerospace Technologies at the University of Malta has teamed up with QuAero Limited, an SME which has been involved in several aerospace research projects over the past decade, to work on project ACSAGO (Active Control Side-stick for Aircraft Ground Operations). The main objective of this project is to improve the control of aircraft during taxiing using a new and innovative control system based on active side-stick technology.
The active side-stick allows the pilot to control aircraft speed and direction by taking the pilot's input commands and converting them to conventional steering angle, brake and thrust commands. Furthermore, the side-stick control system intelligently monitors an aircraft’s position (relative to the taxiway) and provides force feedback to the pilot when there is a divergence from the intended path of the aircraft. In this way a pilot can more easily taxi an aircraft using the active side-stick alone without requiring the use of the tiller, engine thrust levers or brake pedals. The active side stick can also be used when more eco-friendly taxi methods, such as electric taxi operations, become more common and the method of choice for taxiing.
Since the start of the project over a year ago, the ACSAGO team has implemented a first prototype of the method and system of aircraft taxiing using active side-stick control. In addition, the team recently submitted a patent at the UK Intellectual Property Office to protect the technology and intends to present its initial research findings at a scientific conference in the US.
Since the end user of such a system will ultimately be pilots themselves, a number of volunteer airline pilots will be invited to participate in the next phase of the project which will focus on evaluating the system. These evaluations will help refine the system by identifying any issues, thus helping to make the system more robust and safe as well as more user-friendly from the pilots’ perspective.
ACSAGO (R&I-2017-032-T) is financed by the Malta Council for Science & Technology, for and on behalf of the Foundation for Science and Technology, through the FUSION: R&I Technology Development Programme.