Sunday, April 11, 2010

Manufacturing the Autopilot System

This autopilot system was initially designed and made back in May of 2007 (just about three years ago now!), and the software that was written for it (and its functionality) has since undergone some major improvements, which I'll be discussing in a future post.

The details here are only fairly basic, so if you'd like any more information or for me to clarify anything, please let me know and I'll do my best to answer!

This first photograph shows the bare faceplate after its initial machining. You'll notice that it's made of clear acrylic, as that allows for the engraving (shown later) to be backlit. In this unpainted shot of the front panel, it's also possible to see the recesses which were cut in the rear of the panel to allow for the buttons to be fitted correctly.

Once the face plate had been done, the next step was to position and fit the vertical speed encoder. The vertical speed roller wheel was machined from a flat sheet and painted. All of the buttons and knobs needed to be machined also. The knobs were made from acetal and were 'knurled' with the appropriate hatch pattern.

Once the sizes of the various pieces had been verified as correct, it was then time to begin finishing them. The first step was to paint the face plate with two coats, as the paint needed to be thick enough to prevent unwanted backlighting from seeping through.

The engraving of the main panel was done after leaving the paint to dry thoroughly over three days or so. This is important, because if the paint isn't completely dry when you engrave, it will 'tear' and give a bad finish. To test for the correct brightness and effect, in the photograph above there's a red LED temporarily hooked up behind the top left arrow.

In this instance, I engraved all of the buttons prior to cutting them from the sheet. This was done because of the relatively small size of the buttons, which might've caused unnecessary difficulties in clamping them down after the fact. It was easier to do it this way. Naturally, this piece of material had been painted well in advance to allow adequate time for it to dry.

Once the collection of buttons had been cut out, it was then time to file them to give a nice finish.

Above are the finished panels just prior to their installation. The top panel, or rather it's accompanying software and operation, will be discussed in more detail shortly; there are still a few minor tweaks being made to its software.

And here, of course, is the Autopilot fully installed and operating in my ATR72 Simulator.


  1. Really nice work, saw the post on HaD!

  2. What kind of bit do you use on the cnc machine in order to cut out those button holes on the main panel?

  3. Very nice work! How are you actually sensing button presses and mounting the switches/sensors to the buttons to get a decent tactile response and some mechanical stability?

  4. I have to say, your sim pit looks about 5 times as nice as most small aircraft cockpits I've seen. VERY nice work.

  5. What software are you using to generate toolpaths? I've got a hobby CNC up and running, and I'm looking for CAM software suggestions. I'm especially interested in how you're generating the text toolpaths.

  6. Your cockpit looks better than most aircraft I've worked on.

    Great job!

  7. This is exactly what i'm wanting to do and seeking help with.
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    I have buyers in waiting for a finished product, money to be earned.
    Contact or

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