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How Autopilot Works

        Science | Modern

Autopilot Parts
Image courtesy Bill Harris

The heart of a modern automatic flight control system is a computer with several high-speed processors. To gather the intelligence required to control the plane, the processors communicate with sensors located on the major control surfaces. They can also collect data from other airplane systems and equipment, including gyroscopes, accelerometers, altimeters, compasses and airspeed indicators.

The processors in the AFCS then take the input data and, using complex calculations, compare it to a set of control modes. A control mode is a setting entered by the pilot that defines a specific detail of the flight. For example, there is a control mode that defines how an aircraft's altitude will be maintained. There are also control modes that maintain airspeed, heading and flight path.

These calculations determine if the plane is obeying the commands set up in the control modes. The processors then send signals to various servomechanism units. A servomechanism, or servo for short, is a device that provides mechanical control at a distance. One servo exists for each control surface included in the autopilot system. The servos take the computer's instructions and use motors or hydraulics to move the craft's control surfaces, making sure the plane maintains its proper course and attitude.

The above illustration shows how the basic elements of an autopilot system are related. For simplicity, only one control surface -- the rudder -- is shown, although each control surface would have a similar arrangement. Notice that the basic schematic of an autopilot looks like a loop, with sensors sending data to the autopilot computer, which processes the information and transmits signals to the servo, which moves the control surface, which changes the attitude of the plane, which creates a new data set in the sensors, which starts the whole process again. This type of feedback loop is central to the operation of autopilot systems. It's so important that we're going to examine how feedback loops work in the next section.