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Flying helicopters by computer.

Helicopter are notoriously difficult machines to control and even experienced pilots frequently have trouble negotiating simple maneuvers.If a measure of complexity is added, such as carrying a suspended weight or trying to hold a steady hover in windy conditions, the task becomes daunting.

Arthur Bryson of Standford University's Department of Aeronautical and Astonautics and his research team are trying to change all that. Using advanced control system and computer modelling concepts, they are perfecting a system in which helicopter pilots play the role of flight managers, instead of constantly having to worry about controlling the machine.

"We wanted to move the pilot's emphasis from controlling the helicopter to other tasks - like monitoring the meters and looking out the window more often to see if there's a risk of a midair collision," indicates Chris R. Purvis, a doctoral student on the research tea,. "Neglecting these |discretionary' tasks frequently causes accidents. The pilots is often too busy with the controls of pay much attention to the."

Helicopter pilots simultaneously have to manage the altitude, speed, and direction of the craft. This is especially difficult when approaching a hovering position and requires unusual coordination among the pilot's mind, hands, and feet. Acceleration in any direction is achieved by altering the angle of the rotor, which adjusts the direction of the rotor's thrust. To change the hover position, for example, the rotor must be tilted to accelerate the machine, then tilted in the opposite direction to bring it to a standstill at the desired point. "It's something like bringing a ship into a dock," explains Bryson. "You have to reverse the propellers and start slowing the ship long before you've actually reached the dick. The only difference is that in a helicopter everything is happening a lot faster.

The research team's basic task was to develop a computer program that would model a expert pilot. When the pilot indicates he wants to turn, climb, or alter velocity at a certain rate, the computer calculates the difference between what the helicopter is doing and what the model says it should do, then automatically adjusts the controls to achieve the desired maneuver. The researches knew that such a system would not be accepted unless the pilots felt that they - not the computer - were in control of the aircraft.

The most mathematically efficient way to fly the machine is not necessarily the way an expert pilot would have flown it in every instance. "It was important that the computer issued commands to fly the helicopter the way an expert pilot would," Bryson points out. "Otherwise, he is not likely to use the automatic system."
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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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