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What is Active Control Technology?

Active Control Technology describes a category of flight controllers (sometimes known as Active
Inceptors) which aid the piloting of advanced fly-by-wire aircraft. Active flight controllers are driven by
actuators that can be programmed to affect the force and displacement characteristics felt by the pilot. This is
very different to conventional fly-by-wire aircraft control sticks, which are passive. By using actuators to
control the movement of the active stick in response to force applied by the pilot, the stick can be
programmed to feel as though it is held by springs and dampers.
Active inceptors and other active controls are not mechanically connected to the control surfaces
which they are used to manipulate. As the actuators are controlled by a computer, the characteristics of a
synthetic spring feel can be varied dramatically with flight condition thus allowing the pilot to feel how the
aerodynamic forces are changing. In addition, the main flight control computer can issue commands to the
stick and therefore give the pilot tactile cues of the flight restrictions and the onset of structural limitations.
This ability to control the stick is in stark contrast to passively controlled fly-by-wire aircraft where the
pilot's control stick moves a simple spring system and has little, if any, capability to adapt its feel
characteristics with flight condition. The ability to feel the physical cues of flight improves the pilot's
situational awareness, decreases pilot workload, and ultimately enhances safety.
Controlling Stick Feel - Conventional aircraft with mechanical
linkages have control stick forces that increase with aircraft
speed. This is because aerodynamic forces increase with speed,
making the control surfaces more difficult to move. This is
beneficial to piloting characteristics because the force applied to
the stick is about the same for the same rate of manoeuvre or
normal acceleration. The pilot can therefore, feel the forces and
rate of manoeuvre. In addition, it is often the case that as the
aircraft approaches flight limits such as stall, an aerodynamic
buffeting occurs, which is felt by the pilot by a mild shaking of
the stick.
In fly-by-wire aircraft, the control stick moves electric sensors, which send signals to computers, which
control the movement of the control surfaces. Existing sticks cannot change their feel characteristics with
flight condition, and so the pilot has fewer cues to make him aware of the flight condition than in a
conventional aircraft with mechanical linkages. The active stick overcomes this problem and gives flexibility
to include additional feel characteristics (cues) that can improve the piloting characteristics.
Advantages of Active Control Technology:
• Real-time control of force feel
• Smooth, high quality feel
• Improved interface to user (e.g.. flight envelop restrictions, tactile cues)
• Carefree handling
• Readily configurable for coupled (linked) twin-cockpit operation
Real-Time features:
• Feel
• Soft stops and hard stops
• Detents
• Stiction/Friction
• Stick shaker
• Coupled/Linked
• Backdriven
• Force feedback
Active Control Stick Characteristics and Cues
Cues (e.g. stiffening, vibration, force-displacement discontinuities) alert the operator of changes in
the aircraft operating envelope, warnings and other notifications. Cues remove the need for the pilot or co-
pilot to search for the information elsewhere and allow them to maintain a higher level of situational
awareness. Because the active control stick is controlled by a computer almost any characteristic can be
programmed. Typical and useful characteristics include:
• Multi modal feel characteristics - the ability to completely change the stick feel when moving from
one flight condition to another, for example, in a vertical take-off and landing aircraft from wing
borne to jet borne flight.
• Variable stiffness characteristics - the control forces can be changed forcing the pilot out of
dangerous manoeuvres.
• Variable range of motion - the available motion range can be changed forcing the pilot out of
dangerous manoeuvres.
• Soft stops - localised increases in the force characteristics can be programmed dramatically into the
stick characteristic to warn the pilot of the onset of flight restrictions.
• Power management cues - in helicopters a major maintenance expense is incurred if the pilot applies
too much torque to the rotor. The stick force can be made to reflect the rotor torque through the flight
envelope reducing pilot workload in monitoring the torque and operating costs.
• Stick shake functions - to mimic buffet ad issue warnings to the pilot.
• The stick can also be made to reproduce the mechanical characteristics of a more conventional stick
such as breakout forces at the datum.
Active Control Technology and the Training and Simulation Industry
The better the flight simulator the better the training experience. Simulators using active control
technology are able to closely mirror the "feel" provided by passive inceptors, and can also superposition
tactile cues onto the basic "feel" profile. The ability to control the feel of the stick dramatically improves the
pilot’s situation awareness, therefore providing a more realistic simulation experience and a much more
effective training environment.
Active Control Terminology
Haptic - Is the science of creating a realistic sense of touch to the user in a virtual environment.
Tactile Cue - A haptic signal or prompt, transduced via an active inceptor to the pilot.
Passive Inceptor - An inceptor that uses basic mechanical devices, such as springs and dampers, to produce
the control forces felt by the pilot. The control forces felt by the pilot are a function of the inceptor system
and cannot be varied without physical changes to that system.
Active Inceptor - An inceptor that uses electromechanical actuation to modify the control forces felt by the
pilot. The control forces, tactile cues, are modified in real-time as directed by the Flight Control Computer
(FCC).
Reference Plane - The plane that defines the locations and angles of the inceptor.
Null - Inceptor reference displacement. Commonly, the system coordinate system 'zero', about which the
force-feel characteristics is defined. In a cyclic stick null is typically defined as the position of the stick when
the stem is normal to the reference plane.
Neutral - The point at which there is no force from the system.
Finger Reference Point (FRP) - The point at which a pilot's third finger naturally rests on the joystick grip.
The FRP is commonly assumed to be the point through which all forces are input.