Inherently Unstable

By lex, on September 26, 2008


Those were the words that jumped out at me when I read this otherwise edifying article (H/T occasional reader Flatlander) about robot helicopters teaching themselves to fly:

Writing software for robotic helicopters is a daunting task, in part because the craft itself, unlike an airplane, is inherently unstable. “The helicopter doesn’t want to fly. It always wants to just tip over and crash,” said Oku, the pilot.

To scientists, a helicopter in flight is an “unstable system” that comes unglued without constant input. Abbeel compares flying a helicopter to balancing a long pole in the palm of your hand: “If you don’t provide feedback, it will crash.”

Ya see, this is what I’ve been on about: Airplanes want to fly. And they will, so long as Mongo can be taught to restrain his baser impulses. Helicopters don’t want to fly: They’re composed of a thousand moving pieces, each built by the lowest bidder, continuously enaged in patient, grim determined opposition to one another. At very high speeds, considering how slowly the whole Goldbergian aggregation mutters through the sky.

This is why, envious Kiwi chopper crooners notwithstanding, airplane pilots tend to be even-keeled models of social grace and optimism. While helicopter pilots – like their aircraft – tend to be a little, well: Inherently unstable.

Because it helps to be inherently unstable to pull off a stunt like this:

About 40 minutes following the crash (of his wingman in an Iraqi desert), enemy personnel suddenly appeared and began firing on their position. At this time, (CWO5 David) Cooper and his co-pilot were already starting up their engines to get an aerial view of the situation. Immediately upon taking off, Cooper’s aircraft became the target for enemy fire. Cooper flew his helicopter directly into the enemy fire, attacking the enemy positions and diverting fire away from the ground forces.

He landed his helicopter near the crash site twice during the engagement, where his fellow pilots downloaded ammunition and fuel from the crashed Little Bird and transferred it to his. These actions kept Cooper’s aircraft in the fight for as along as possible. After a third series of aerial gunnery attacks, the enemy personnel finally ceased firing and fled the area.

Lt. Gen. Robert W. Wagner, commander, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, described Cooper’s actions that day as seemingly impossible.

Of course it’s seemingly impossible. But rotary-wing aviators do the seemingly impossible every time they man up. They trust that once again, their whirling rotor blades will somehow not fly, so  much, as to flog the air into submission.


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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Flying

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