Technology Behind the Panic Button

By Robert Mark on July 10th, 2011

When I penned an article about the Panic Button the Rockwell Collins folks announced at Paris a few weeks ago, I was upset … not with the Rockwell folks, but with the plummeting airmanship skills that the development of a device designed to save a big airplane if the pilots lost control seemed to imply. My angst was tied to the AF 447 crash over the South Atlantic and the Colgan accident in Buffalo.

I had to admit,Rockwell panic of course, that if I were in the back of the airplane, I wouldn’t be worrying much about what a potential accident might say about the skill level of the aviators. My guess is I’d be a bit more focused on saving my tail, as well as everyone else’s.

The Rockwell Collins folks seemed to understand the pilot proficiency quandary in my head when they followed up the day the story ran. After a brief chat about how the system worked, I realized there was more behind the development of a device I found somewhat repulsive as an aviator, yet a godsend as a passenger.

First came a real definition of what many have been calling the panic button. Adam Evanschwartz, Rockwell Collins principal marketing manager for commercial systems in beautiful, downtown Cedar Rapids, said it’s really called the Autonomous Backup Capability (ABC – my acronym actually) and it’s built into existing flight deck avionics systems like Rockwell Collins ProLine Fusion. If the crew can’t control the aircraft for some reason, such as what happened to the Colgan crew, the ABC system could right the aircraft.

“Humans are tasked with using their brains to stay ahead of the airplane above and beyond what is demanded of other vehicle operators,” Evanschwartz said. “And sometimes, crews simply lose situational awareness.” He added an important element to the discussion when he explained that, “There is a trend in aviation toward smaller crew numbers on the flight deck. We expect that single pilot aircraft will become more familiar at some point, such as more business aircraft owners flying their own aircraft.”

Raising the Bar on Safety

Despite how it might appear, Rockwell Collins was working on this system long before Air France 447 crashed in the summer of 2009. The company acquired similar technology initially used to right unmanned drones when Athena Technologies was folded into the Rockwell Collins manufacturer (see video below).

Evanschwartz said that’s when Rockwell Collins began to consider the possibilities within their own product line. “In business aviation, we looked at the spectrum of solutions we supply. One of our market drivers is safely flying business aircraft and eliminating risks, one of course being human risk. We knew we needed to look at new ways to mitigate those risks.

How Autonomous Backup Capability Works

Should the pilot or pilots lose situational awareness of their aircraft – something the Rockwell Collins people expect will be more prevalent at lower altitudes than up high – the pilot would flip a guarded switch. The Pro Line Fusion system will sense the problem and engage the autopilot (assuming it was NOT engaged) and roll the aircraft’s wings level and get the aircraft flying straight and level for 15-30 seconds. The ABC system is designed to work with auto-throttles which would then bring the power up and initiate a climb until the aircraft reaches threat-free airspace before it will enter what Evanschwartz called a “loiter mode.” At this point, everyone hopes the pilot will have figured out what’s happening and be able to again take control.Rockwell damaged

A damaged drone lands using Autonomous Backup Capability

I wondered how many other aviators reacted to the Panic Button technology – Evanschwarts said Rockwell Collins really doesn’t mind the name – as I had. “When we went through the initial design, many pilots mentioned the likelihood others would would react with skepticism, but actually, many instantly recognized the value. We didn’t get any pushback from our Industry Advisory Group either. They thought is was a pretty good idea for a pretty bad situation. There is no substitute for pilots, airmanship and the ability to manage distractions. This is a backup idea we hope no one will ever need.”

Many readers wondered after the AF 447 crash and the Panic Button story whether or not the ABC could have saved that airplane. Evanschwartz explained that even ABC “pulls information from altitude, air data and inertial sensors to understand how to control the aircraft.” Without airspeed or angle of attack information, as was missing in the Air France accident, Evanschwartz said even the Autonomous Backup Capability would not have functioned to save the crew or passengers.

Watch this YouTube video for a close-up look at how the system lands a damaged scale model drone.

Rob Mark, publisher


Related Posts:

14 Responses to “Technology Behind the Panic Button”

  1. Kevin Roll Says:

    Umm….. Garmin invented this three years ago with the LVL button included on the autopilot controller in the Cirrus Perspective panel.

  2. John Daniell Says:

    Having worked most of my life in Flight Test, and having discussed some of these issues with Airline pilot friends:

    Even if AF 449 pilots couldn’t figure out why all the bells and whistles were going off telling them the airspeed system was screwed up, was it really beyond the pilots to fly by attitude while keeping engine power where it was (cruise power), and ignoring the airspeed and altitude indications? If they had done this, all the sensor icing would have melted when they emerged from the thunderstorm they were flying through, and airspeed and altitude readings would have come back on line.

  3. Miguel Perez Says:

    Dear Mr. Mark,

    Thank you for the article about Honeywell’s ABC technology. I feel your reaction sounds a tad emotional rather than objective. I am all for organic airmanship but I am for safety above all. Any technology which can produce positive results is fully welcome on my end. It is just my opinion but I can respect yours. Please make sure you correct the typos on line 5, paragraph 9 and keep up the good work.


    Miguel Perez

  4. Steve Says:

    does the “…I found somewhat repulsive as an aviator..” attitude mean you feel it would never happen to you? I would think that this could save a pilot and passenges lives should the pilot get disoriented or inadvertantly flies into IMC and allow him the time to get reoriented and stop the panic that may have set in otherwise. Of course, it doesnt seem it would even work with more basic aircraft that dont have autothrottles and the like (and the price is probably prohibitive anyway). The AF flight appeared to be in a flat freefall, so Im not even sure it would have made a difference.

  5. Jerry Says:

    Trio Avionics has had this capability in their autopilots (for experimental aircraft) for over 6 years. When a VFR pilot encounters weather and becomes obscured and disoriented, the pilot simply pushes a button on the instrument face. Both pitch and roll servos engage, the aircraft rolls to wings level and altitude hold – and it then performs a 180 degree turn to take them back to (hopefully) better weather. The complete system sells for less than $4,000.

  6. Robert Mark Says:

    First to John’s point. Til I die — or at least until
    the BEA report comes out, I’ll never figure
    out why pitch and power wouldn’t have worked.

    But right now it doesn’t look as if they even tried
    that option.

  7. Josh Says:

    Sounds like someone got their ass ripped and was forced to recant.

  8. John Daniell Says:

    If I had my way, all pilots would have to demonstrate using ‘pitch and power’ on the simulator, and also fly part of at least one leg with the airspeed and altitude indications blanked out, just like the way we had to when going through elementary flight training. All the automatics nowadays seem to have obscured good old basic flying skill.

  9. Steve T. Says:

    I see a Catch-22 in the statement that the ABC is to be used in case the pilot or pilots lose situational awareness. Wouldn’t the pilot(s) have to have some situational awareness to realize that they have lost situational awareness?

    I stand by my previous post in response to your original blog on the subject Rob. All my training to this point in my career has been focused on how to save the day if the automation not only fails, but is trying actively to kill me. Now I am supposed to decide when to throw away that experience and put my life in the hands of a computer? I am not saying there are the very rare cases where that might be the appropriate response, but that would be a TOUGH sell (and usually need to be decided on in a SHORT time-frame)!

    As far as saving AF 447 goes, Rockwell Collins may just not be creative enough in applying their ABC gadget. Inertials, which apparently gave good info all the way to the water on AF 447, supply the information to show the airplane attitude, so there is your pitch and roll (and ground speed, BTW). Now just have the auto-throttles set a pre-determined power setting. MIGHT have bought the crew enough time…

  10. Terry Welander Says:

    This must be a joke. Pilots are trained not to panic and to fly out of any
    emergency, if the aircraft is able. More pilot training is the key, not a panic button. The FAA and most government aviation organizations will
    likely take a real dim view of a panic button; a large offense to pilot training. Call it anything you want except a panic button.

  11. Robert Mark Says:


    I probably am being a bit emotional about this. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of this tool. As I said earlier too, I know that Garmin and Cirrus worked together to add that technology in the Cirrus Perspective airplanes.

    Somehow it didn’t bother me to hear about it in an airplane of that size, but in an A330, or even a business jet, it just seems to me like we need to demand better proficiency from the crews.

  12. Frank Says:

    Flying attitude and power seems to have been the best solution, but they must have been experiencing some incredible turbulence. I’m guessing they would have been close to the high and low speed stall edges of the envelope. That turbulence, if extreme, could have easily rendered control inputs (i.e. attitude flying) useless.

  13. latest modern technology Says:

    latest technology…

    […]Technology Behind the Panic Button – Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinion[…]…

  14. Schlsselnotdienst Duisburg Says:

    Schlsseldienst Duisburg…

    […]Technology Behind the Panic Button – Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinion[…]…

Subscribe without commenting