This software could be coming to “anything that flies”

Garmin to receive Collier award on Nov. 4 for its Autoland innovation

When Bailey Scheel was 8 years old, her grandfather taught her the basics of flying his Cessna 180 so that in the unlikely event of a pilot incapacitation, she could safely land the plane. Scheel grew up to oversee development of Garmin International’s software and control servos that are now certified to automatically land some kinds of aircraft in emergencies.

Because of Autoland, Garmin is poised to become the latest name etched into the 100-year-old Robert J. Collier Trophy following a National Aeronautic Association dinner next month.

So far, the technology has been installed on 350 general aviation aircraft, following its certification last year by FAA and the European Union Aviation Safety Authority.

Garmin has plans to adapt Autoland for “anything that flies,” including passenger airliners and additional general aviation aircraft beyond the Piper M600/SLS single engine turboprops, Daher TBM 940 turboprops and Cirrus Vision Jets approved by regulators, Scheel told me in an interview ahead of the Nov. 4 Collier event.

Aboard these general aviation aircraft, Autoland would be activated by the push of a button on the instrument panel or the roof of the cockpit. The software would take over and land the plane, although no documented cases of that have yet occurred. Autoland also would automatically activate if a pilot did not respond to an emergency, such as a cabin depressurization, within a certain period of time.

Scheel has been a passenger during two Autoland-facilitated landings, but some of Garmin’s test pilots have tested the technology upward of 300 times. “It’s the most unremarkable landing,” Scheel told me, “which is exactly what you want.”

Broadening the kinds of aircraft that can carry Autoland will require Garmin to modify the setup. An obvious difference, Scheel says, would be the method for activating the software and equipment. In general aviation aircraft, passengers could easily reach the instrument panel if the pilot were unconscious. In a single or twin-aisle airliner, the passengers would be confronted by a locked cockpit door.

For these larger aircraft, the question is: “How do you ensure that the automation is doing what it should do without the passengers needing to get involved?” Scheel says. “It’s a different way of looking at the human factors.”

In parallel, Garmin is developing multiple Autoland spinoffs. The company in July announced Smart Glide, a software based on the Autoland routing algorithm, which selects the best landing site based on factors including weather and available fuel. In case of an engine outage, Smart Glide recommends a landing site within glide range and, unless overridden by a pilot, autonomously steers the aircraft toward the destination.

“It’s a good next step for us to continue looking at places where we can take the technology that was developed and approved and adding it to situations where pilots really could use that support and additional help,” Scheel says.


This software could be coming to “anything that flies”