Autopilots Information

Airplane cockpitAutopilots are electronic systems designed to navigate a vehicle without human input. They are common in aircraft, boats, space vehicles, missiles, and UAVs. These reduce a vehicle operator's workload when travelling long distances because they do not require intensive oversight, which could be fatiguing to the operator. Though limited in availability for marine and automobile applications, they are most common in the aerospace industry.


Many aerospace regulation agencies require certain types of aircraft to be outfitted with autopilots for safety. Smaller aircraft rely on electronic gyroscopes to determine pitch, roll, and, sometimes, yaw, while in flight, but they also rely on hand control for landing, takeoff, and other essential functions. Autopilots in commercial or military aircraft use three-axis and generally divide a flight into taxi, takeoff, climb, cruise, descent, approach, and landing phases. An autopilot is often an integral component of a flight management system. Flight management systems also calculate thrust, balance fuel reservoirs, economize fuel consumption, and accommodate for gyroscopic error.

Modern autopilots use computer software to control a vehicle. The software reads the vehicle’s current position and then operates a control system to guide the vehicle. In such a system, besides classic directional controls, many autopilots incorporate acceleration and speed control capabilities that can control throttles to optimize vehicle speed.

Image credit:

William M / CC BY-SA 3.0