OLATHE, Kans. — New technology from Garmin has the ability to safely land a plane if the pilot is incapacitated.
The announcement of the new system, called Autoland, came days after the 20th anniversary of the plane crash that killed professional golfer Payne Stewart. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the cause was a loss of cabin pressure that rendered the crew unconscious.
In the past decade, 269 people have been killed in the U.S. in crashes stemming from pilot incapacitation, according to the NTSB.
"As those have happened in more recent times, we've looked at those and thought, ‘Wow, we don't have to allow that to happen,’" Garmin Executive Vice President of Aviation Philip Straub, a pilot himself, said.
Garmin's Autoland technology was eight years in the making and currently is geared toward small planes.
With the press of a button, a passenger can engage the system, which will navigate the plane to the nearest suitable airport and land it safely. The system also will activate if it senses the pilot is unconscious.
"I view this as for my kids in back,” Straub said. “My spouse, my business colleagues that I fly that really, their interest isn't in the airplane itself, it's in traveling from point A to point B.”
Once it lands the plane, Autoland even turns the engine off. The system also alerts air traffic control of the emergency, so people on the ground are aware of the situation.
"We've tested it thousands of times,” Garmin President and CEO Cliff Pemble said, “and I've even gone myself in the airplanes and really loved what I saw.”
The technology is ready for takeoff. The last step is for aircraft makers to finalize certification on their level.
Pemble said he believes the technology could not only save lives, but also help address recent pilot shortages affecting the industry. With Autoland, certain aircraft could fly with one pilot instead of two.
"It has the potential to change the conversation around all of aviation," Pemble said.
Garmin is launching the system with aircraft makers Piper and Cirrus, which will make Autoland an option in certain 2020 models. According to TechCrunch, those planes cost a few million dollars.