Tactile technology, modular avionics, compact HUDs, voice-control, and aircraft health monitoring systems.
By Jake Carpenter
Onboard flight controls connect pilots to the aircraft they operate. From the advent of aviation, these controls have evolved rapidly from simple levers and cables to advanced constructs of augmented reality, haptic interfaces, voice recognition, and proactive aircraft health monitoring and management systems. Continuing from Part 1 (see Pro Pilot, Jul 2023, p 22), what follows is a further exploration of some of the most innovative and powerful onboard flight control systems that have appeared to date.
Feel the flight: tactile technology
BAE Systems’ Active Control Sidesticks (ACSs) constitute a major advance in tactile (haptic) technology in aviation. ACSs offer both dynamic and static tactile force feedback directly to the pilot’s hands, enhancing safety and reducing pilot workload.
Unlike traditional passive controls, ACSs employ electronically-controlled haptic actuators that inform pilots of structural or aerodynamic operating limits, and provide them with pertinent cues that can be crucial for maintaining a safe and stable flight.
In addition, with ACSs, the resistance level at any stick displacement can be controlled dynamically in flight or preprogrammed to align with specific mission or aircraft requirements. ACSs also feature a single box configuration, which provides reduced size, weight, and fuel consumption.
BAE Systems’ ACSs are currently used in numerous aircraft, including the Gulfstream G500/G600 and Embraer C-390 Millennium, and were selected as the first flight-standard military active stick in the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.
Swipe right for flight
Thales’ FlytX integrated flight deck is the first touchscreen to be certified by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) for utilization in commercial aviation. Jean-Paul Ebanga, vice president of flight avionics at Thales, states that the integrated touchscreen constitutes a landmark in cockpit evolution.
FlytX offers a user experience that is completely analogous to smartphones and tablets. Its tactility, user-centric design, and familiar modality offer reduced training time, optimized workload, and improved safety. An additional highlight of the system is its capacity to interact securely with connected tablets, thus enabling pilots to interface directly with electronic flight bag (EFB) applications.
Moreover, FlytX introduces touchscreen capacities in the cockpit at a gradual pace, allowing pilots to choose how they interact and adapt to this technology in a phased manner. It is also customizable and integrates seamlessly into any civil or military cockpit.
FlytX withstands an array of operational constraints, such as low reflectivity, dense electromagnetic environments, and high levels of vibration. Due to implementation of integrated modular avionics (IMA), FlytX also reduces size, weight, and power consumption by 30–40% compared to legacy avionics.
Projection powerhouse with a small footprint
BAE’s LiteWave head-up display (HUD) presents critical flight information onto the windshield of the aircraft. As in other HUDs, LiteWave enhances pilot cognizance, situational awareness (SA), and flight safety.
LiteWave can be implemented in cockpits with highly stringent spatial constraints. It is 70% smaller and lighter than traditional HUDs. Mounted above a pilot’s head, this laptop-sized HUD creates an unobstructed conduit for presenting pivotal flight information. As BAE Director of HUD Products Lee Tomlinson notes, “The beauty of LiteWave is that it can fit into virtually any cockpit. Our team of engineers have developed a digital display that is smaller and lighter than other HUDs, and uses less power.”
Although LiteWave is small, it still offers all of the cutting-edge functionalities of larger HUDs. LiteWave has also demonstrated a remarkable mean time between failure (MTBF) of 15,000 hours.
For years, the aviation sector has pursued the goal of integrating voice control into commercial aircraft. The ubiquity of voice control in everyday life has catalyzed and showcased this capability. Garmin, the first avionics manufacturer to introduce certified voice command in the cockpit, provides Telligence.
Telligence employs automatic speech recognition technology to respond to intuitive phraseology, and is engaged via a yoke-mounted push-to-command button. It can handle hundreds of common task commands, enabling flightcrews to tune radios, navigate through flight deck menus, and obtain flight information using their voices.
Honeywell Aerospace’s Anthem flight deck offers highly advanced voice recognition and command capabilities, too. The system allows pilots to speak conversationally, in a manner that is similar to that of flying with another pilot. Honeywell Director of Product Marketing Jason Bialek describes the overall aim of Anthem’s voice technology as “to allow more natural interaction so that pilot mistakes are less likely.” It also supports a very broad range of commands and piloting duties.
Notably, Anthem’s voice command applications and corresponding data and processing are all housed within the system, and thus require no connectivity.
Next-level ops and maintenance
Boeing’s Airplane Health Management (AHM) is a revolutionary system that monitors real-time flight data to optimize both operations and maintenance procedures. AHM is critical going forward, as Mike Fleming, vicepresident of commercial services for Boeing points out. “The amount of data coming off an airplane will double in the next 20 years,” he adds. Of course, such aggregated data can serve as an invaluable resource for advances in the aviation industry.
AHM enhances troubleshooting by leveraging Boeing’s historical and current knowledge and fleet data. The system collects, organizes, and prioritizes airplane data and fault information, and enables operators to formulate precise repair plans. Automated alerts, which are customizable to each operator’s needs, are sent directly to maintenance personnel as soon as an issue arises, thus promoting proactive maintenance.
AHM also includes prognostics, predictive analytics, fault forwarding, and prioritization methods to prevent schedule interruptions and increase efficiency. Moreover, the addition of a parametric module has further improved AHM capabilities, offering systems condition monitoring, servicing management, airplane performance monitoring (APM), and a comprehensive report viewer and data extractor.
AHM’s core operations encompass comprehensive data collection, strategic organization, and prioritization of airplane information and fault reports, facilitating the rapid formulation of repair strategies, maximizing operational efficiency, and minimizing disruptions to flight schedules. Overall, AHM exemplifies proactive maintenance on a level previously unattained. The system is currently active in multiple Boeing aircraft models, including the 777, 747-400, 757, 767, and 737NG.
Onboard flight controls have experienced a remarkable evolution, from rudimentary manual systems to today’s high-tech interfaces. Each advance forms just a small part of this revolutionary transformation, from the tactile feedback of BAE Systems’ ACSs, the intuitive touchscreen system in the Thales FlytX flight deck, BAE’s compact and powerful LiteWave HUD, voice command systems by Garmin and Honeywell, and Boeing’s proactive AHM system.
As we proceed into the future, the exponentially increasing potential of these technologies is clear, and will propel us toward unparalleled interaction, efficiency, and safety. Indeed, continual advancements in onboard flight controls reveal a horizon in aviation that is as promising as it is infinite.