Technology, artificial intelligence, and automation together promise significant yields in flight safety, utility, and efficiency.
By Don Van Dyke
ATP/Helo/CFII, F28, Bell 222
Pro Pilot Canadian Technical Editor
Futurists work to ensure that connected airplanes transition seamlessly from current arrangements to future configurations.
Recent designs seek to improve efficiency and competitiveness by allowing operations in degraded visual environments (DVEs) and access to airports with less capable ground-based approach aids.
Overarching goals include reducing weather-related delays by 20%, cockpits featuring common architectures (technologies and design), and harmonizing presentation and management of features common to fixed-and rotary-wing categories.
Aviation relies more than ever on computers, computer networks, or virtual reality to improve flight safety, efficiency, capability, and product range. Greater data collection and analysis yields greater traffic and weather awareness with more efficient flightpaths and profiles, reduced flight times, lower fuel consumption and emissions, and other wide-ranging benefits.
Flightcrews manage the airplane flightpath using a combination of automation and manual handling. As technology and innovation advance, operating benefits evolve in almost unimaginable ways.
Historically, avionics systems operated in standalone configurations, physically isolated from other systems and external networks (federated system), and protected by air-gap security, but flight deck architectures are moving from federated to integrated (unified) system designs to reduce form factor, weight, and required power.
Future flight deck
Avionics futurists imagine a flight deck with new architectures that integrate related technologies such as displays, data networks, graphics, and general processing to implement the following functions:
Safety. Head-up displays (HUDs) and synthetic environments offer safety benefits through increased awareness. They also yield performance improvements through reduced workloads.
While presenting new features, flight deck technology must address what remains the most significant cause of fatal accidents in commercial aviation – loss of control in-flight (LOC-I).
Situational awareness. As the designed balance between machine autonomy and human-assisted operations evolves, the trend is to progressively isolate the pilot from physical aircraft control.
Nonetheless, the pilot’s role remains in resource management and providing needed redundancy in the event of equipment outages. Essential to this accountability is maintaining SA (monitoring communications, flight plans, traffic, etc).
Aircraft control. The pilot remains the final authority as to the operation of the aircraft, and is the last line of defense in the event of compromised aircraft control. The goal of intuitive and integrated controls is to allow the pilot access to more information without interrupting their concentration on flying the aircraft.
In this area, human/machine interfaces (HMIs), like touchscreens, voice control, and connection to technologies like HUD and combined vision are critically important.
Speech can eliminate many manual steps required to execute a command, thereby decreasing workload and allowing a pilot to focus on flying safely and efficiently. Voice can be especially helpful in the cockpit when calling up infrequently used commands or menus for which the crew might otherwise spend significant time searching.
Futurists are also developing advanced natural language processing systems that can discern commands against constant background noises associated with flying.
Using such a system, pilots can move a displayed map and navigate to specific points using only words rather than moving and pointing with their fingers on a touchscreen.
This will allow pilots to remain fully engaged on flying the aircraft rather than having to divert either their gaze or their hands to manipulate a non-essential control in a critical phase of flight.
Gesture control (tracking hand movement in free space) and eye-movement control go beyond swiping a touchpad or screen. Such systems are currently being tested.
Other innovations involve controls, such as thrust levers, providing feedback to the pilot. While the practical applications of such features are not yet clear, numerous safety benefits could accrue.
Connectivity. The effect of connectivity on aviation is profound, and the avionics industry is at the forefront of connected aerospace.
Connected flight management system (FMS) concepts would make vast quantities of real-time SA data available to the flight deck (weather, traffic patterns, etc), which could be used to adjust the aircraft flight plan or flight profile.
Connectivity and advanced data analytics can also anticipate maintenance needs on a wide range of aircraft systems, including avionics. This will enable technicians to begin to deal with issues before they cause operational disruptions.
Aircraft equipped with high-speed connectivity allow crew and passengers to use their personal laptops, tablets, and smartphones in convenient ways.
A digital interface will enable passengers to order specific meals, drinks, blankets, and amenities for a catered travel experience that reduces crew workload and improves passenger touchpoints.
Removal of embedded inflight entertainment may yield more space and permit different onboard storage options, netting weight/cost savings for operators.
Smart restocking will use galley sensors to automatically determine the inventory required for reloading the aircraft and communicate that information to ground personnel.
Trust but verify
Compliant avionics will meet requirements for confidentiality, integrity, and availability in safety-critical real-time operating systems. But ultimately, a path for confirmation (feedback) must be made available, and it must be used by the pilot. Of course, this assumes appropriate technical understanding and currency on the part of the pilot.
In their pursuit of improving product lines, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) constantly review market needs and revise their designs approaches.
Collins Aerospace. The Pro Line Fusion flight deck designed for the Airbus C295 tactical airlifter includes key FMS features to help operators during search and rescue (SAR), and other missions.
These include SAR patterns, Computed Air Release Points (CARPs), and High Altitude Release Points (HARPs).
The Pro Line Fusion for the Embraer Praetor 500 and 600 features pilot-selectable display format on 4 15-in LCDs that allow flightcrews to view a wide range of information such as flight-critical data, synoptic diagrams of aircraft information, and navigational charts and maps on multiple presentations, which enhances SA significantly.
Garmin. The Garmin G5000 future-ready flight deck upgrades capabilities and facilitates future technological retrofits for a number of aircraft.
GE Aviation. The Open Flight Deck project involves GE Aviation, BAE Systems, and the University of Southampton in developing an open-architecture cockpit designed to unlock innovation and future-proof aircraft flight decks.
New pilot-centered interface technologies improve SA, decision-making, and aircraft utilization in adverse weather.
Design goals support 4D flight planning and zero-visibility landing, thereby extending the operational envelope and offering significant fuel savings Gulfstream.
The manufacturer uses a data concentration network developed by GE Aviation to perform smart functions and add new capabilities by collecting data from various systems and making that information available to other structures.
This also reduces costs through the weight savings of eliminated radio racks.
Honeywell. The Primus Epic 2.0 flight deck supports the SmartView synthetic vision system (SVS) and interactive navigation to identify challenging terrain and redirect flightpaths.
Thales. The new Thales Avionics 2020 integrates and displays open world information with data from secured sources, making this the world’s first fully-connected helicopter flight deck.
Universal Avionics. The UA Fly-by-Sight Navigation System combines the ClearVision SkyLens head wearable display (HWD) and its recently unveiled software-based Interactive FMS (i-FMS).
The i-FMS allows the pilot to project waypoints and information from the FMS onto the real-world view, superimposed on displays with which the pilot interacts by head/eye tracking and a select/deselect button on the aircraft throttle.
The open flight deck (OFL) is a logical extension of the avionics common core system, featured on the Boeing 787 and the Gulfstream G500/600.
This architecture permits modules to be plugged into the avionics platform as required, preserving both flexibility and future-proofing.
Historically, the high cost of certification and updates stood as a barrier to adopting new avionics technologies. The OFL concept defines the standards and interfaces which allow functional applications to develop. These will then be easier and faster to deploy.
The net result is improved safety and efficiency, since technological upgrades are no longer delayed. Also, there are significant reductions in the costs of change, and updates are available earlier.
For the first time, technology will be able to deliver its benefits to future aircraft OEMs, operators, and pilots in a timely manner.
Don Van Dyke is professor of advanced aerospace topics at Chicoutimi College of Aviation – CQFA Montréal. He is an 18,000-hour TT pilot and instructor with extensive airline, business and charter experience on both airplanes and helicopters. A former IATA ops director, he has served on several ICAO panels. He is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and is a flight operations expert on technical projects under UN administration.