Aircraft manufacturers are constantly looking for innovative ways to improve efficiency, reduce operating costs, enhance safety, and provide ease of use to operators. As a result, engineers look to identify critical systems that would benefit the most from a technology upgrade. Of the numerous aircraft elements, none fit the above description better than the engine, which has historically been demanding from a pilot-workload perspective. Although there have been numerous technological advancements in this domain, this blog will focus on the Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) system. This electronic module takes all of the engine control out of the pilot's hands and modulates various parameters autonomously to achieve optimization.
Like many other aircraft systems at the time, the first engine control systems were supported by a series of direct mechanical connections from the cockpit. Through the manipulation of various levers and buttons, the pilot could modulate fuel flow and power output, among other engine attributes. This system was slow and added a great deal of cognitive loading, which always increases the risk for error. Throughout the mid-20th century, analog electronic control replaced the mechanical system. The new control module design was more accurate and responsive than its predecessor but still didn't solve the problem of regular pilot input. Then, in the 1970s, NASA and Pratt & Whitney combined resources to create the first FADEC system. Over the years, the vast majority of aircraft have transitioned to FADEC.
The FADEC's nomenclature accurately describes its function when implemented appropriately. A true FADEC system retains full authority over the engine, including parameters such as fuel flow, bleed valve position, and stator vane position. This means that if the FADEC were to fail, so would the rest of the engine system. However, FADEC systems are designed with incredible redundancy, including dual electrical power sources, EMI shielding, multiple sensing elements, and each fuel injector being controlled by two separate controllers. Although some mistakenly refer to systems with manual pilot override as FADECs, that description is reserved for regular electronic engine control (EEC) systems.
FADEC poses several benefits over traditional EEC systems, leading to enhanced safety and efficiency. Particularly, the FADEC analyzes several parameters over 70 times per second to modulate fuel consumption for peak optimization. The speed and accuracy provided by the FADEC system would be impossible to achieve for even the most experienced of pilots. FADECs also contribute to superior starting performance by sensing cold starts and enriching the fuel mixture as necessary before correcting the mixture as time goes on. Finally, the FADEC leads to a longer operating lifespan for the engine through the implementation of an RPM limiter.
Some would argue that there are disadvantages associated with FADEC systems. Particularly, pilots that are used to controlling the various engine parameters may take time to adapt to a fully automated system. There is also a safety concern for some since a FADEC system failure would mean an immediate loss of engine power. However, through the various redundant strategies discussed before, FADEC systems enhance safety and improve engine function.
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