Since the digital revolution changed forever the pilot’s working environment, innovators and suppliers of cockpit systems have strived to provide a continuous stream of new developments and products that offer increasingly automated solutions to what has to be done to fly and land an airplane safely.

As the first “glass” cockpits with CRT-type displays were introduced in the 1980s, there was understandably much opposition from many within the active flying community as these revolutionary devices removed at a stroke all those scores of instruments that were so familiar and which all seemed absolutely essential at the time.

Airbus made the first strategic leap in committing to a cockpit with primary displays projected on a glass screen, starting with its A310, and with the all-new A320 provided almost all its instrumentation in this form, and went even further with a highly automated fly-by-wire flight control system, featuring fighter-style side stick controllers.

There was an outcry from flight crews when increased computerization led Airbus to conclude that the new technologies could completely eliminate the need for a flight engineer in the cockpit. But with all essential onboard systems, plus all navigational and flying information available and in clear view, or just a flick of a switch or press of a button away, the change to digital became a headlong rush.

Human Factors

Current standard of airline cockpit—the latest Boeing 787-900. (Richard Gardner)

Following recent high-profile aircraft losses and other flight incidents, some critics have suggested that industry has made the profession of flying too easy and too relaxed. When an aircraft’s key integrated flight data inputs are supposedly protected by five separate computer systems and a series of fail-safe flight control recovery modes, and yet the crew become confused as the computers become overwhelmed by conflicting information returns, there is a need for quick and decisive, but appropriate, corrective action.

Human factors are often the key to analyzing what has gone wrong and so the onward march of cockpit automation and component miniaturization, which has led to even very small executive jets and general aviation aircraft being fitted with highly automated displays, now has to seriously consider if enough scope is being allowed for pilots to actually fly the aircraft and not just assume it will fly itself—even though it usually does!

All the leading cockpit system suppliers are now well advanced in designing and bringing to market what appear to be approaching the ultimate in user-friendly displays. Even quite recently some of these developments have looked more like science-fiction inventions, but the availability of new materials and new manufacturing processes that can embed touch-sensitive switches and controls into large wraparound transparent panels, have been made possible by adopting much technology that has come from the gaming and CGI sector as well as the Grand Prix car racing sector.

Cockpit display of the future? ODICIS wraparound touchscreen. (Richard Gardner)

Making these applications robust enough for safe everyday use in life-critical aviation use is more time-consuming from a regulatory angle, as ease of use has to be balanced by sufficient tactile interaction between man and machine so that there is no loss of authority or confidence on the part of the pilot, who ultimately must remain in charge.

HUD Advances

The day when civil air passengers will fly in commercial aircraft that have no human pilots on board could happen very soon, technically, but it won’t, as no airline, and few customers, would want to take the risk. However, an identical flight, with two crew in the cockpit as monitors and who could take control in an emergency, will probably be the most likely way forward, with little difference in delivery and presentation to today’s operations. Truly disruptive advanced avionics technology will more likely appear first in the military sector.

One development that certainly has its origins in military aviation but which has now taken pilot situational awareness (SA) to new levels in the commercial market is the head-up display (HUD). Certified by Airbus this year, Thales has now introduced a twin HUD configuration that enables all the projected information to be seen by both pilots simultaneously.

With eyes focused outside, viewing the presentation of the flightpath, acceleration, visual glide-slope angle, and the runway aim point, both crew members can achieve greater precision and SA at all times and can interact with one another with the same information during the most critical phases of the flight, especially in bad weather and low light conditions.

The Thales AMASCOS Multi-Mission display console with touchscreens and integrated target identification system. (Thales)

In late September, Thales announced that its latest dual HUD system had been selected by China Southern Airlines for use aboard its 30 new A320s. It is a significant order as it’s the first dual HUD to be ordered by a Chinese airline and the country’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAAC) has made it mandatory for all Chinese registered aircraft to be equipped with HUDs.

As China’s skies become more congested, HUDs are fast becoming a mainstay for pilots and the country is leading the world in adopting this technology. China has progressed in under two decades from operating some of the world’s oldest airline fleets, flying largely Russian-designed aircraft, to having some of the world’s youngest airline fleets, flying the latest models from Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, and Embraer. As well as placing orders for thousands of new Western aircraft, China is developing its own indigenous aircraft and in due course will no doubt design and build more of its own avionics systems in place of buying Western products.

Helmet-Mounted Display Case

Close up of an AMASCOS display.

Taking the avionics progress story on the SA theme back into the military sector, the latest developments go beyond HUDs with ever more sophisticated helmet-mounted displays (HMDs). Recently BAE Systems presented its latest, fifth-generation HMD, the Striker II, which incorporates FEATURES that were developed to give pilots flying aircraft such as the F-35 and Typhoon a comprehensive, game-changing capability.

The F-35 is presently unique in new combat aircraft in so far as it doesn’t have a HUD but depends on an HMD to provide all the key target and flying cues and data ahead of the pilot’s normal vision. During the F-35’s lengthy development phase BAE's Striker was used as an interim alternative while the incumbent supplier solved image vibration issues. In the meantime the Striker has been proven operationally in use with Typhoon and Gripen fighter aircraft and has now been enhanced by making it an all-digital solution. In addition the helmet has been fitted with an integral night vision camera.

The key to exploiting HMD usage in modern combat aircraft is to give the pilot minimal interference or restrictions in operation, while remaining lightweight and comfortable. This is easier described than solved as such a system has to not only provide crystal clear imagery under all environmental conditions, by day or night, but must not result in creating any blind spots or causing extra strain on the neck and upper torso.

The new Striker II enables the HMD to show imagery from any source and adds new levels of functionality. As well as projecting night vision imagery and standard weapons-aiming and flight symbology, the digital architecture allows a zooming function and the ability to present picture-within-picture imagery and even images from external (off-board) sensors that could aid the pilot in target identification. This new comprehensive digital capability can incorporate sensor mixing to increase SA significantly, and this work is under active development.

Although the HMD is aimed primarily at use onboard fighters and attack helicopters, the system architecture is adaptable to allow it to be integrated into almost any aircraft. An analog converter has been developed so the helmet can be compatible with older systems as well. The addition of an embedded night vision camera replaces the traditional night vision goggles (NVGs) that are clipped onto a helmet in front of the visor.

With NVGs the pilot’s ability to look around from the cockpit is usually restricted and they also upset the natural mass balance of the helmet assembly. If a pilot wears NVGs for some time then this can cause neck fatigue as well as leading to restrictions on the g-limits being imposed on the aircraft, not a good feature with combat agility an important requirement for all military fast jets.

On the Striker II helmet the night vision function can be switched on or off through a hands-on throttle and stick control. Trials and feedback from operations indicate that this new function will be particularly valuable at dawn or dusk when a pilot may have some difficulty deciding whether visibility is better with or without the night vision imagery. Another benefit from the new helmet is an advanced head-tracker system that supplements the aircraft’s optical tracker. This gives increased tracking accuracy and continues to track the helmet in positions in which some of the optical tracking is lost.

Multi-Mission Functionality

The evolution of digital avionics is taking many other paths in addition to revolutionizing the pilot’s cockpit. A good example is the new functionality that can be applied to the displays and controls needed aboard multi-mission aircraft. The traditional interior of a multi-engine military sensor platform aircraft has rows of display consoles, each faced by an operator who is allocated specialist tasks collecting, searching for or analyzing data that is streamed into the aircraft.

On aircraft such as the Boeing E-3 Sentry or other electronic communications and signals intelligence platforms, the specialist crews onboard can number around 30 and have bespoke display stations with operational managers keeping the data flows moving and helping to set priorities. So much data can be collected on these missions that information overload is a real challenge. Although automated data filtration systems can narrow down some of the input so operators including signals specialists can focus on mission priorities or unusual data, it is highly skilled personnel who ultimately identify, track, and deal with suspect information and then distribute it accordingly.

In the case of maritime patrol and surveillance air platforms, the aircraft cabins are also filled by displays and operator desks. Major defense system companies, such as Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, L-3, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Thales, and Selex ES are all engaged in the development and supply of integrated mission systems for specialist air platforms. Thales has just introduced AMASCOS, a new airborne mission system for maritime and ground surveillance aircraft that may have a similar design impact to that which accompanied the first Airbus glass cockpit.

The main feature that sets AMASCOS apart in a very competitive market is the innovative operator screen display configuration, which is particularly user-friendly, thanks to easy-to-learn interactive touchscreens, which are part of a flexible networked integrated system. It makes maximum use of the latest display technologies and is linked to the latest generation of sensors, including radar, laser, and electro-optical systems and is built around a tactical command system.

With its modular architecture, the network centric system can be configured to optimize the crew task sharing for either a lightweight version for simple surveillance tasks (such as coastal or border patrol in a small twin turboprop platform) right up to full-function antisubmarine or surface warfare versions (for an MPA aircraft such as P-8 or P-3 size platform), with typically up to five consoles controlling radar, IFF, EO/IR sensors, electronic intelligence, acoustics, magnetic anomaly detection, data-links, sonobuoys, and weapons.

This formula allows the system to be integrated onto an optimized platform for customer requirements, offering a wide range of multi-mission capabilities. The operator workload is kept to efficient levels as a result of the high level of system automation. This includes data fusion, identification, and classification. There is a large data base in support of sensors with both an onboard library and access through secure data-links to additional library databases.

All the data available can be shared between single or multiple operators as needed, and the touchscreen layout allows “saved” tracking information and situational maps and radar pictures to be continuously updated in real time with sub-displays dragged across to another display so the operator can investigate or carry out actions with the maximum awareness of all relevant information in front of him or her, and without having to look away to operate another screen and its controls. The operational picture can thus be as simple or as complex as needs demand. The compact design of the displays and their utility enables a smaller platform aircraft, with a smaller number of crews, to carry out the mission with no loss of capability.

This new system is not the only product on the market, but as state-of-the-art avionics for maximizing exploitation of the new technologies while keeping volume, crew demands, and costs affordable, it shows the way ahead. The old convention of operating many different surveillance aircraft types in small numbers for specialist roles is becoming unaffordable and very demanding on training infrastructure. Introducing more flexible multi-mission aircraft that are adaptable to different ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, targeting, and reconnaissance) tasks is now a more practical solution, thanks to the availability of avionics solutions that allow fewer to do more with less.