Last night, I thoroughly enjoyed watcing PanAm on ABC. The TV show transported me back to the days when we dressed up for travel (not down). On cue, Boeing celebrated today the launch of the “787 Dreamliner”, a new marvel in aviation with its sleek design, cabin layout, and distance/fuel capacity. Yet, the unsung hero of modern travel may be a robot pilot named “Auto” (or Otto).
Simply put, Autopilot is a mechanical system that is used to guide a plane or vehicle (without the need for human input). Originally, air travel required the constant attention of humans to safely steer it on course. As distances grew, the Sperry Corporation in 1912 invented a “gyroscopic Heading indicator and attitude indicator” to steer the craft. By 1933, Siley Post used Sperry’s autopilot system to fly around the world (see: Popoluar Mechanics 1933). Today, autopilots are controlled by computers that monitor everything from GPS to altitude to speed. In fact, airlines prefer the autopilot as it generally consumes less gas than it human counterparts. However, they generally do not have that calming voice during deep turbulence.
There will come a time, when travel is completely mechanized from the pilots to the cabin crew. I wouldn’t be surprised if our children watch a nostalgic show about human airline stewardesses. I guess somethings never change.
NOTE: For a more detailed description of autopilot systems, Wikipedia, has a great breakdown on its history and science.