The common feature shared by recent aviation platforms is the high level of systems integration, and the way in which information is displayed or made accessible, allowing previously unimaginable levels of situational awareness to be available to pilots and ground controllers. This has greatly eased the pilot workload and enhanced flight safety, especially when flying in poor weather or operating in unfamiliar or hazardous terrain.

Main panoramic display screen designed by Elbit for helicopter use. (Elbit)
The transition from analog to digital cockpit displays has been comprehensive, but more recently the development of interactive applications and associated technologies has promoted even more rapid progress, notably with the growing adoption of touchscreens, head-up displays (HUDs), and helmet-mounted displays (HMDs). The fusion of synthetic (computer generated) images with real-time inputs from onboard sensors has created a display revolution that is now working its way into a wide variety of avionics products aimed at aircrew and, in the case of commercial passengers, into global interconnectivity.

2020 Keeps Getting Closer

At the 2012 Farnborough International Air Show, Thales unveiled a proposal for a future one-piece “wrap around” touchscreen display panel that could be adapted to fit any cockpit and which would replace separate screens and control panels. The company has now moved on from this and at this year’s Farnborough presented its latest iteration of how the next-generation “cockpit of the future” might look.

While less science-fiction looking than the previous design exercise, the new concept, “Cockpit 2020” is a more practical stepping stone toward a new way of exploiting the large amount of information that is available from onboard sensors and data links, as well as from stored data. The unitary displays comprise very large integrated flat touchscreens that can display interchangeable information between pilot and co-pilot positions, or can be configured flexibly as required.

The intention is to provide both a “strategic” picture of the entire flight profile, from start to finish, as well as the more “tactical” en route information, which will include upcoming weather, terrain, and air-traffic-movement information, and such factors as fuel states, optimum speed, and altitude data.

The current standard in commercial cockpits, complete with HUDs, inside the Boeing 787-9. (Richard Gardner)
Instead of giving the pilot a massive level of information to absorb, the 2020 concept prioritizes what is actually required at each stage of the journey. For example, after start up, the system will merge data provided from an onboard airport map database, with electro-optical sensors (which will give day or night vision) and GPS positioning, and will overlay visually the taxiing route as directed from the airport control tower.

After takeoff the main display will show the flight plan, in 3-D, with a vertical display chart available, and all other information as requested by selecting from the menu and touching the screen. Such hazards as bad weather ahead will be shown in a contrasting color. The background will be in a “soft” monocolor with selected items highlighted in brighter markings or a different color.

The 2020 timescale envisages initial applications in new commercial aircraft, business jets, and civil helicopters. Thales sees this development as a user-friendly half-way solution between HUDs and head-down displays (HDDs), with all the benefits from both.

Development work for Thales' 2020 uses real displays, hardware, and interfaces, and is presently adding new functionalities, such as provision for a pilot to “slot in” an individual tablet device in a central pedestal location that will have been pre-loaded with flight information and other items. There will be secure entry/exit procedures for any such external devices introduced into the cockpit.

Thales is now looking at how to optimize the use of this technology, taking a modular approach so that in the future software can be added to give even more flexibility without having to recertify the whole system. An open architecture is the key to bringing all this innovation together within a realistic timescale.

A Look Into the F-35 Cockpit

The F-35 didn’t make it across the Atlantic for its planned international debut, but the week before the show, Lockheed Martin provided a media briefing day where there was a detailed update on the status of the program and the in-service evaluation and crew-training progress. Also offered was a chance to “fly” the F-35B simulator and to sample the game-changing situational awareness in this true 21st Century cockpit environment.

The F-35 pilot's office—ultra simple with panoramic touchscreen. (Richard Gardner)
Understandably, with over eight million source lines of code (four times that in the F-22 Raptor) contained within its multi-million dollar airframe, getting everything to work as advertised in an operational setting is a huge challenge, and one that is not yet ticking all the boxes. But one-by-one the glitches are gradually being overcome and it is clear that when released for unrestricted operational service (probably around 2020) the aircraft will be in a class of its own.

Talking with the U.S. and U.K. pilots who are already flying the machine on a daily basis as the training program ramps up, all agreed that this airplane is the easiest they have ever flown, with an “unbelievable” electronics-enabled capability. As more software enhancements, networked connectivity, and weapons are added over planned Block inserts, it's expected the aircraft will only get better.

So what exactly is it like in the driver's seat and how are avionics changing things so radically? The first thing that stands out as unusual is a spacious cockpit almost devoid of switches, with all essential controls grouped close together within easy reach around the left throttle control and right flight control side-stick.

Compared to most fourth-generation fighters, where every available space is taken up with added-on display panels and switches, the F-35 “office” looks empty. One reason for this is the single panoramic cockpit display in front of the pilot, offering 20 x 8 inches of touchscreen. This widescreen display, supplied by L-3, is comprised of two side-by-side units that have aircraft state information across the top strip while below are four changeable display groups that have all the tactical and mission information in a format selected by the pilot.

Typically, on a mission, the pilot will call up half the screen showing tactical information, such as navigation, hazard information, and aircraft movement data—including friendly and hostile aircraft and missile tracking—with the other half of the display showing the status of the aircraft systems, such as weapons availability and fuel states.

The Thales future Cockpit 2020 aims to replace all switches and console controls with touchscreens. (Richard Gardner)
Touching the screen symbols or selecting from drop-down menus enables the pilot to access information instantaneously. Early fears that touchscreens might not be easy to use accurately in severe turbulence or high g combat conditions have not proved to be an issue, and the pilots destined for an operational career flying F-35s have adapted very quickly to this new way of doing things.

Above this display the view ahead through the massive canopy is unobstructed as there is no HUD on top of the combing. All the key in-flight information and critical mission data is prioritized by the display-management computer that integrates all the inputs from the different sensors and then projects the appropriate symbols in front of the pilot’s eyes on the HMD system visor, developed by Vision Systems International. Initial versions suffered serious issues, so the Joint Program Office contracted BAE Systems to develop an alternative design. This showed great promise, but in the meantime VSI introduced various modifications to overcome the earlier performance shortcomings and is now back on the program.

BAE has continued to work on its own design, which has now evolved into the Striker 2, a much enhanced version of its current Striker HMD, which is used on the European Typhoon and Gripen fighters.

The F-35’s HMD has a very demanding technical specification as it has to work in all day and night conditions and allow the pilot to look around through 360° (yes, even under and behind the aircraft due to full spherical cover provided by the Northrop Grumman-supplied Distributed Aperture System (DAS), which fills in beyond the pilot’s physical viewing limits.) The information relevant to the pilot’s field of view is prioritized for display on the HMD, but an alternative 360° display of the tactical situation can also be displayed on the panoramic HDD.

Systems information is all fused, so target identification and tracking can be acquired from the Northrop Grumman APG-81 AESA radar, the DAS, and the Lockheed Martin-developed Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS). Combined, this gives an unprecedented situational awareness around the aircraft day or night. EOTS combines forward-looking infrared (FLIR) and infrared search and track (IRST) functions that offer the F-35 pilot maximum flexibility when deciding to operate sensors in a passive or active mode, depending on the combat situation.

The built-in electronic warfare suite provided by BAE does away with the need for specialist EW aircraft carrying bulky external pods and gives both a self-defense warning capability against hostile aircraft or missiles and the ability, alongside the advanced synthetic aperture radar, to jam hostile radars, transmit false information, or gather signals intelligence. The airplane can thus take on a powerful networked ISR role within a larger air group in addition to providing its own air defense and attack capability, with its low radar cross-section qualities giving it a decisive edge over any adversaries.

As all the onboard systems are fully integrated and data fused, the F-35 promises to deliver the optimum mission solution in all envisaged circumstances. Taking most of the pilot workload out of the mission comes at a high cost but is what air forces have been dreaming about for generations. The reality is getting nearer, but it has not arrived yet, much like the plane itself to Farnborough.

Situation Awareness and Comfort for the Future

F-16 cockpit upgrade for South Korea from BAE Systems. (Richard Gardner)
At Farnborough, there were many other examples of new avionics developments from all the major suppliers. Thales has developed and put into mass production its TopOwl for military helicopter use. It is claimed to be the widest-angle binocular helmet with a visor-projected display, ensuring that the pilot’s natural vision of the outside world by day or night is preserved at all times.

Each helmet is individually tailored to the pilot for optimum comfort and performance with a finely tuned center of gravity, improving safety and reducing fatigue on long endurance missions of up to eight hours. Along with flight and cueing symbology with a precise head-tracking system that can be slaved to onboard weapons, it features an advanced computer-generated augmented reality to aid operations in poor flying conditions and at night with intensified night vision and FLIR imaging.

Thales also demonstrated its new lightweight Scorpion full-color helmet-mounted cueing system now in full production for use on Airbus helicopters as well as U.S. aircraft including the F-16, A-10, and AC-130W. Dynamic flight and mission data is projected directly into the pilot’s line of sight via a large field of view, fully transparent, optical waveguide assembly. It’s also compatible with night vision goggles. HMD symbology and patented features include integration with bar-coded canopy-mounted sensors (which require no extra cockpit wiring or intrusion into the avionics bay) that provide enhanced situational awareness in conjunction with other onboard sensors.

Isreal’s Elbit was also very active at the show, exhibiting a range of HMDs. A new lightweight HMD, Skylens, aimed at civil helicopter operators was shown, which is part of the Clearvision enhanced flight vision system family from the company and is a goggles-like display that is as easy to wear and compact as a pair of sunglasses.

Skylens is supported by a low-impact single miniature tracker reference unit and gives pilots high-resolution images, information, and video, increasing safety on such missions as offshore oil and gas support operations. The Clearvision family also includes enhanced vision systems specifically designed for helicopters, the Skyvis monocular next-generation HMD, HDD, and HUD synthetic vision systems.

The Clearvision Skylens enhanced vision system from Elbit. (Elbit)
In case anyone thinks that HUDs are becoming obsolete, BAE revealed more information on its latest HUD development, the Digital Light Engine (DLE), which generates the image source using digital techniques rather than using a cathode ray tube. The DLE increases display resolution (which degrades in time with a conventional HUD, requiring more power) by using waveguide optical technology rather than conventional optics.

According to the company, the new system allows a tenfold improvement in HUD reliability and a 50% reduction in repair costs. The resulting simplification in the design enables the HUD to be integrated easily with new displays, bringing new opportunities in upgrades to older, but still very capable combat aircraft such as the F-16.

But Farnborough was not just about military aviation. IntelliCabin, the latest cabin system offered by BAE, offers an upgraded experience for economy passengers—and could be on commercial airlines as early as 2015. Intelli-Cabin is an integrated approach to cabin management that provides a modular, scalable architecture for capabilities such as in-seat power, LED lighting, wireless tablet-based in-flight entertainment, and dimmable windows.

Its in-seat power solution reduces weight and costs while offering a smart distribution of power based on the needs of each passenger and the overall cabin. LED lighting and dimmable windows create a more relaxed ambience and assist with setting the environment for a comfortable onboarding and travel experience. Using either the central control panel or handheld devices, which can be utilized anywhere in the aircraft, cabin crew are able to adjust temperature and light settings to optimize levels of comfort for passengers throughout the flight.

Although most economy passengers are concerned with extra legroom, there is no doubt that other onboard facilities are set to improve as the avionics revolution continues to impact everyone who flies.