Computerized flight decks improve comfort and increase flight safety by reducing pilot workload.
By David Ison
Professor, Graduate School Northcentral University
Automation can be defined in various ways, but it is generally accepted to mean the use of control and information systems to reduce the need for human work or oversight.
While automation may seem like a recent concept, humankind has not only dreamed of such mechanization, but actually used various types of it since before the common era. With the industrial revolution, industries of all types began to reap the rewards of automation, and aviation did not wait for very long.
Less than a decade after the Wright brothers’ flight, Elmer Sperry and a fellow scientist from Germany, Hermann Anschütz-Kaempfe, adapted a children’s toy gyroscope to keep a vehicle heading in a steady direction. Coupled with a compass, this new device quickly gained widespread adoption, mainly by the US Navy.
Enter the autopilot era
Lawrence Sperry, Elmer’s son, had his eyes on the skies, so he worked on creating a version of his father’s invention for use in aircraft. At an aviation competition in Paris, he did the “look ma no hands” trick while his copilot took a walk out on one of the wings of a Curtiss C-2 seaplane.
The plane kept steady without pilot input, and thus the autopilot, which was nicknamed “George,” was born. The system was connected to all 3 flight controls (ailerons, elevator, and rudder) of the plane, but it was not entirely aircraft-friendly as it weighed 40 lb, measured 1.5 x 1.5 x 1.0 ft, and relied on a wind-powered generator to spin up the enclosed gyros.
Apparently, Lawrence even did a partially automated takeoff and landing that day. Needless to say, he won the competition, and his feat marked the beginning of what has been referred to as the virtualization of flight, meaning pilots are further removed from the hands-on aspect of flying.
The rapid escalation of complexity, speed, and size of aircraft from the 1920s through the end of WWII ushered in further automation. And the 1960s brought the addition of electrical elements to the automation loop, such as navigation systems.
Toward the end of the 1960s, the Concorde’s maiden flight brought forth another iteration in technology – fly-by-wire (FBW), albeit at that point it was only analog.
The current era of automation is referred to as electronic, because of its computer-centric nature. In the late 1970s, work began on flight management systems (FMSs).
The first commercial aircraft to sport this new system were the Boeing 757 and 767. Such advances in automation also reduced the number of required crewmembers from 5 or more in the 1940s to the 2 accepted as the norm today.
Around this time, “steam gauges” began being replaced with “glass” displays, although at first these were only rudimentary copies of gyroscopic instruments. Continuing the advance of FBW, the Airbus A320 came with a digital-type system.
Additional safety features started being incorporated, such as Airbus’s “air laws” and “hard flight envelope protection,” and Boeing’s “soft flight envelope protection.”
It is not uncommon for a flight to receive route, altitude, and speed instructions, which pilots input into the FMS so that it commands the autopilot and autothrottles to make all of the necessary adjustments with few – if any – physical connections between cockpit control and device being manipulated.
Thus the pilot’s environment has become ever more virtualized. Automation provides comfort, improves efficiency, lowers pilot workloads, and takes over on the most monotonous tasks. It is credited with helping reduce aviation accident rates to some of the lowest levels they have ever been.
However, paradoxically, the pendulum has also swung in the other direction, with automation being blamed for reduced safety and higher pilot workloads. Colgan Air 3407 and Air France 447 highlight the dangers of over-reliance on automation and the degradation of raw flying skills.
In addition, because FMSs and other systems have become rather complex, knowing how to program them can be challenging and time-consuming, especially with last-minute ATC requests. And things get even worse when automation starts to do something in contrast to what you thought you told it to do.
Let’s not even bother to address the 737 MAX – it speaks for itself. Even in light of the occasional misuse or misunderstanding of automation, the efficiency and safety of air transportation across the board are testament to how well it all works.
Today’s general aviation aircraft have automation that used to (and sometimes still does) rival that of airliners. Moreover, airliners today look like the Starship Enterprise compared to what we flew only a couple of decades ago. Even though aircraft automation has been capable for a while now, it’s still impressive to be able to watch a plane initiate a descent, slow down on cue, and land all by itself in the lowest of visibilities.
If it weren’t for the flaps and landing gear (and to taxi in from the runway), we wouldn’t need pilots at all. With this intro to aviation automation, let’s take a look at the latest and greatest offerings by the top automation providers – Collins, Garmin, Honeywell, and Universal.
This company has an impressive array of integrated intelligent cockpits in the form of its Pro Line series. Boasting the industry’s first touch-control primary flight display (PFD), Pro Line can be installed as standard equipment or as a retrofit for many popular aircraft models.
The most advanced version, the Pro Line Fusion, has many catchy elements such as intuitive icon-based controls and an advanced synthetic vision system (SVS) that highlights runway features and adds mile markers to the display, all of which can be shown on a head-up display (HUD).
Moreover, the HUD can be coupled with the company’s EVS-3000 enhanced flight vision system (EFVS) camera to display real-time imagery of runway lighting (including the latest LED installations), terrain, and obstacles.
Additional integrations include MultiScan automated weather radar with predictive capabilities, datalink suitable for NextGen operations, and a feature called Airport Moving Map that ensures adherence to taxi instructions and helps avoid runway incursions.
Known for its creativity and quality, especially in its aviation division, Garmin boasts that it has solutions scaled for any size aircraft. The company has an array of genuinely unified and cohesive avionics suites that incorporate the latest and greatest in cockpit technology, including SVS, moving maps, flightpath and route data – all shown on advanced panoramic backlit touchscreen displays.
Garmin flight decks are ready for NextGen operations and primed for datalink communication. Its signature G2000 through G5000 suites are chock full of features such as touchscreen, haptics (think pinch to zoom), voice activation, tablet-style apps, and connectivity with other devices through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi using Garmin Connect.
Adding a HUD is an easy fix with Garmin’s GHD 2100, which projects the in-house augmented reality SVS technology, and allows users to pursue special authorizations for lower minima Cat I and II approaches.
Furthermore, Garmin’s Autonomí system includes an autoland function that is activated by pushing a button. It looks at nearby airports, intervening terrain and weather, and performance capabilities, among other factors, and decides where to land.
It configures the airplane properly for landing, and keeps both passengers and ATC apprised of the status of the process. Additional features are electronic stability and protection, emergency descent mode, and smart rudder bias, which assists multi-engine systems to stay safe in the case of an engine failure.
Aligning with efforts by NASA, FAA, and GAMA, Honeywell has been using simplified vehicle operations (SVO) philosophies to tailor its latest products. SVO aims to reduce the complexity of learning and using cockpit technology.
One of the goals is that data will be more readily available when and where it might be expected to be displayed. Also, automatic sensing allows information to be adjusted to provide an accurate reflection of completed checklist items or real-time configurations.
While touchscreens have become the norm in modern life, including the cockpit, flying is a unique environment that doesn’t always go smoothly.
Thus Honeywell has opted for resistive technologies which require pressing the screens, rather than just touching them, to actuate their features.
The company has also embraced the reality of e-flight bags with the publication of its Global Data Center iPad app, which enables comprehensive preflight and inflight tools, including approach plates, weather, weight and balance, and route mapping.
Another recent addition is the SmartView SVS, which can be integrated with Honeywell’s core glass avionics suite – Primus. Large screens display feature-rich virtual flight environments along with advanced flightpath symbology.
The manufacturer’s integrated interactive navigation (iNAV) displays traffic, terrain, airspace, airways, airports, navigation aids, and weather, providing a complete strategic and tactical flight planning and control system. Pilots can make real-time comparisons of current conditions outside the aircraft with the strategic flightplan, and make decisions accordingly.
All of this is coupled with the automatic flight control system, also known as the autopilot, to provide a seamless and efficient flight experience. Looking ahead, Honeywell has developed a next-generation FMS which marries its current iteration with tools and capabilities required (or expected to be required) in NextGen ops.
It’s no surprise that Air Traffic Services Unit (ATSU) Airline Operational Communication modules have also cropped up.
Offerings by Universal include the InSight display system, with advanced airport maps, embedded SVS, charts, and a flexible interface.
What’s unique about InSight is that it combines the control of flight displays, FMS, radios, weather, traffic, and terrain into a centralized control device.
Add to this Universal’s Interactive FMS (i-FMS) and you have a tablet-like interface that makes the system intuitive to any current smart device user.
Further, the i-FMS can interact with HUD and helmet visual displays, allowing what Universal refers to as fly-by-sight. The company offers a range of SVS and EFVS options. The most basic is the display of SVS on a PFD. But that’s where rudimentary features end.
Universal’s ClearVision SVS for HUD gives pilots wide and tall field of view in high resolution, flight guidance symbology and runway highlighting, precision guidance for takeoff and landing, flightpath vector, speed deviation, and acceleration cues.
The available EFVS uses multispectral sensors to provide a real-life image of what is ahead of the aircraft in high resolution and superior contrast, including the ability to display LED lighting. Taking things to a level little short of epic is the combined vision system (CVS) – a cross between EFVS and SVS – in which video is mixed with thermal and camera imaging to provide a 3-D view of the terrain.
The icing on the cake is the SkyLens wearable HUD, which is like a military-grade helmet HUD available for anyone who wants it.
These are exciting times for cockpit gadgetry. Essentially, any aircraft can be outfitted with most, if not all, features of the various systems mentioned here.
Yet, even more capable systems are on the way. With the harnessing of machine learning and artificial intelligence, smarter and more capable integrated cockpits will come to fruition, and more autonomy will be given to the avionics brains of aircraft.
Ultimately, this prompts the question of when we should start worrying about something bigger than George?