How engineers are working to make voice-activated airplanes a reality

  • Honeywell Aerospace researchers and engineers are working on aircraft systems that can be controlled by voice.
  • Pilots will be able to give commands and have a virtual assistant perform tasks to reduce pilot workload.
  • This is the last step towards a fully autonomous autonomous aircraft that experts say will fly the skies by 2050.
  • See more stories on the Insider business page.

“Hey Siri, take me to Los Angeles.”

Voice-activated technology is continually advancing, and just as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are integral to consumers’ daily lives, one company is looking to do the same with voice-activated airplanes.

Honeywell Aerospace engineers and researchers are currently working on new cockpit systems that will allow pilots to control their planes with voice commands.

This is the latest effort aimed at reducing pilot workload by increasing automation in the cockpit. The idea is that pilots can give simple commands like tune to a radio frequency or turn to a heading, while spending less time on tedious and time-consuming tasks like weather research.

“Tell me the weather in Charlotte and tell me the critical weather en route,” is an order that could be given to lighten a pilot’s workload, said Vipul Gupta, vice president and general manager of Honeywell Aerospace Avionics, at Insider. “And [the] the system detects this and automatically displays this information to the pilot. ”

Gupta likens it to saving time by asking Siri for the weather and having the virtual assistant do all the work instead of looking for it on a computer. And Honeywell strives to give pilots the same technology in the cockpit as they do in their daily lives.

Touchscreen technology that emulates smartphones is already common in business jets like the Gulfstream G500 and G700. Gulfstream’s Symmetry cockpit, powered by Honeywell’s Primus Epic cockpit, relies heavily on touchscreens to replace traditional instrument panels and flight computer screens.

Gulfstream symmetry cockpit

Gulfstream symmetrical cockpit

Honeywell Aerospace / Gulfstream

Even spaceflight has embraced touchscreens, as the world saw when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft flew Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken into space. And just as consumers get used to touchscreen smartphones, they are now getting used to voice control, and it will soon be another tool available to pilots.

“Alexa has brought this third modality of control into our lives,” Gupta said of voice control.

Teaching the cockpit to recognize speech

Before voice-activated planes can fly, Honeywell must train the system to understand aviation jargon, which is not lacking. Telling a plane: “maintain 180 knots to ZULAB and follow the ILS 31L approach” is a little more difficult than asking for the weather in New York for next week.

“The end goal is to bring that understanding of the natural language processing context, then process it, and then deliver the value to the cockpit,” Gupta said.

But unlike Siri or Alexa, the plane’s response must be instantaneous. Pilots cannot wait for minutes while the system recognizes, understands and executes the command, especially when flying in difficult conditions.

Engineers refined the response time to 250 milliseconds to ensure the system can move faster than the pilot. Monitoring the condition of pilots through the use of portable devices will also help ensure that pilots remain fully aware during flight and do not become complacent in the cockpit.

Volunteers with a wide variety of dialects, accents, and speech patterns come to the Honeywell facility in Deer Valley, Ariz., And record hundreds of possible commands in a sound booth. In the background, as they record, simulated airplane noises mirror the sounds of an actual cockpit.

The technology is also tested on a full motion simulator where pilots can put it to the test under simulated flight conditions, including turbulence. All the while, researchers are collecting data on their impact on fatigue levels and whether that actually helps alleviate a pilot’s workload.

Insider demonstrated a basic version of the technology on a recent visit to Honeywell and was surprisingly intuitive and quick to respond.

Honeywell voice-activated aircraft

Honeywell simulator in Deer Valley, Arizona.

Thomas Pallini / Insider

Urban air mobility aircraft and general aviation aircraft are likely to be the first to benefit from voice-activated technology. Single-pilot aircraft are ideal candidates as virtual assistants can help reduce the workload.

Electric take-off and landing airplanes, or eVTOLs, will also be ready for automation due to the sheer number of pilots that will be required to fly them. Honeywell believes that these will not be traditional pilots flying eVTOLs, but trained “operators” who will require simplified cockpit systems.

“What’s going to happen is that as you see the UAM market growing around the world, we’re going to run out of pilots,” Gupta said. “There aren’t many pilots out there today who can actually fly all the airliners, business jets, and UAM planes. It just won’t happen.”

Read more: Meet the 8 electric aviation startups on the verge of overtaking the jet era and modernizing air transport and logistics, according to industry experts

The focus of most eVTOL operators such as Joby Aviation and Beta Technologies is stand-alone operations, where voice-activated systems will play a similar role. But it will not be a pilot who gives the controls, it will be the passenger.

“Eventually I think we’ll have a voice assistant that you just sit in [the aircraft] and the passenger will say, ‘Hey, take me over there, take me over there,’ “Gupta said.” And then the system does it. “

Making the public comfortable with more automation in aircraft is part of the gradual process of developing fully autonomous aircraft.

“Voice control is the first step – the fundamental building block – so you start to build on it,” Gupta said.

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