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Active Sticks: Meeting the needs of tomorrow’s pilots today

Vice president and GM of Controls and Avionics Solutions
More than 25 years ago, BAE Systems began developing active inceptor technology, giving pilots what they wanted, which was the force-feel connection that they once experienced on early aircraft.

When the world’s battlefields first shifted to the sky, air superiority became a term that could mean the difference between winning and losing. Early fighter aircraft, bombers, and attack planes were operated with both mechanical and manual flight controls — complex wired and cabled systems that connect a pilot’s commands to the wings. In the 1940s and 50s, technological advances introduced auto stabilizers and autopilot settings to reduce pilot fatigue and improve flight efficiency. Then, flight control computers led to the advent of digital fly-by-wire flight control systems, which became mainstream aboard military aircraft in the 1980s. However, with these technological advances, came a missing connection between a pilot and the aircraft.

Active side sticks - F35

From auto stabilizers to autopilot settings and fly-by-wire technology, these newer technologies and settings allowed military aircraft to shed weight, cost, and even mechanical complexity. This resulted in safer planes that were less prone to maintenance issues. But one critical component was lost through these technological advances, and that was the pilot’s force-feel capabilities of mechanically-linked aircraft, or in other words, the pilot’s connection between their commands and the aircraft movements. This connection not only increases situational awareness for the pilot but also creates safe redundancies between the pilot and co-pilot.

More than 25 years ago, BAE Systems began developing active inceptor technology to address this missing connection, giving pilots what they wanted, which was the force-feel connection that they once experienced on early aircraft. Our active sticks, or active inceptors, brought back the feel that was lost with fly-by-wire technology. Even in non-fly-by-wire platforms, the technology increased safety through tactile cueing capabilities and the ability to tailor the system to evolving missions. These inceptor systems — active and passive — began to show up in some of the world’s most advanced military aircraft, such as the F-35 Lightning II, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-22 Raptor, and CH-47 Chinook.

F35 Fighter jet at supersonic speeds

In 2006, the F-35 flew for the first time with our active control side sticks, enabling the world’s most advanced fighter jet to accomplish its varying missions with the diverse stick capabilities of the system. Because the potential uses of active inceptor technology exceed the simple simulation of feel characteristics and actually link the pilot and co-pilot, the system became ideal not just for single-seat platforms like the F-35, but also for larger aircraft like the KC-390, which had its first flight with our active stick technology in 2015.

In 2008, as Gulfstream began to develop its next-generation business jet, the desire for the best possible technology for pilots was a priority. We were there with our fifth generation inceptor technology, and now ours are the first civil active control side sticks ever to fly. They are aboard the company’s new G500 and G600 aircraft. This partnership with Gulfstream was recently honored at Aviation Week’s 60th Annual Laureate Awards.

The technological advancements we are now developing for commercial applications of inceptor systems can cycle back into future military capabilities. Tailoring the technology for both markets — military and civil — has invigorated the design and development for both, resulting in a stronger product line and more advantages for our customers.

This journey — from the first generation of active sticks designed for the F-35 to the world’s first commercial active sticks — illustrates the inspiration and innovation our company brings to the avionics industry. And the journey isn’t finished as we will continue to build on our more than 60 years of creating aviation electronics for military and civil platforms.

top Ehtisham Siddiqui
Ehtisham Siddiqui Vice president and GM of Controls and Avionics Solutions July 10, 2017