Astronaut-made virtual co-pilot

This project features several of our favourite things. Astronauts! Machine learning! High-altitude danger! Graphs! (It could only get slightly better with the addition of tap-dancing centaurs.) Read on to have your nerdliest pleasure centres tickled.

Solar Pilot Guard - wing of a plane in flight

Your interest should be focussed on the strange fin with the red tip. Although we agree the mountains look nice too.

Solar Pilot Guard, a Foale family project

Michael Foale is a former astronaut with dual British/American citizenship; and thanks to that dual citizenship was revered by British kids like me as some kind of Superman when he spent time on the Russian Mir space station back in the 1990s. It’s always great to see one of our heroes using the Raspberry Pi, but it’s doubly great when the use it’s being put to is so very, very cool.

Foale’s daughter Jenna is a PhD candidate in computational fluid dynamics, and together they have engineered a machine-learning system called Solar Pilot Guard to help prevent aircraft crashes, using the Wolfram Language on a Raspberry Pi. A solar-powered probe (that fin in the image above) detects changes in acceleration and air pressure to spot potential loss-of-control (LOC) events in flight, calculating the probability of each pressure/acceleration event representing a possible LOC event.

Solar Pilot Guard schematic cross-section

Click to embiggen

If it detects a possible LOC event, the system issues a voice command to the pilot over Bluetooth speakers, using machine learning to tell the pilot what corrective measures they should take.

Here it is in action:

Losing control to generate training data

In order to train the network, Michael Foale had to feed the machine data about what LOCs and normal flight look like — which meant flying the kit in ways which would make the plane lose control, not just once, but over and over, until the neural net had the data it needed to differentiate different sorts of LOC events. Told you he was a superhero.

A stack of different machine learning functions at different levels of abstraction are working together here. This is a training set from one of the (presumably terrifying) training flights:

Solar Pilot Guard training set

The Pi processes and learns from this data; if you’re interested in a very deep dive into the way this all works, and how you can build your own neural networks using the Wolfram Language, there’s a very comprehensive treatment over at the Wolfram blog.

We love seeing projects like this that recognise just how robust and powerful a little Raspberry Pi can be. Jenna and Michael: thank you for sharing what you’ve been working on here. It’s one of the coolest and most audacious projects we’ve seen in a long time.


Richard Collins avatar

Very cool!

“Click to embiggen” Chuckle ;)

Fester Bestertester avatar

IF it does so :)

StevenP avatar

Liz – I especially look forward to your posts with their obscure English words, it’s never too late to improve one’s vocabulary!

A small detail – as Fester Bestertester intimated, there is a problem with the ‘Click to embiggen’ – it isn’t working. I tested this in MS edge, Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome browsers – the drawing of the fin does not embiggen when I click on it.

Liz Upton avatar

>obscure English words

Embiggen is a perfectly cromulent word.

Janina Ander avatar

Embiggening works now. All is right once again.

Guiseppe B avatar

I assume this is designed to be bolted on to small
/light aircraft? Do large/commercial aircraft already have such function built in?

Liz Upton avatar

According to the Foales, no; this has potential to be extended to larger aircraft too.

S. Kalai avatar

This kinds of projects are great. It is something that we can always learn from and aspire to creative ideas.

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