Aviation’s reliance on data to make critical flying decisions increases year on year. The latest aircraft designs now entering fleets are equipped with technologies that can deliver unprecedented collection and transmission of data. Though thousands of sensors and sophisticated digitised systems, the latest generation of aircraft collects enormous amounts of data.
By 2026, new fleets could generate 98 million terabytes annually, according to a 2016 estimate by Oliver Wyman, that’s a whopping five to eight terabytes per flight.
We cannot underestimate the critical importance of this data. For a stark reminder of the trust we place in autonomous avionics we need look no further than the tragic Boeing 737 Max crashes that killed 346 people in all, and eventually prompted the grounding of all 737 Max planes across the world.
Investigations suggest that sensors may have been feeding incorrect data to the MCAS (Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System), leading to a series of events that put the plane into a nosedive.
What’s driving the rise in data? Virtually everything on board is now directly controlled by, or has a related dependency on electronics. Complex electronic systems throughout aircraft, satellites and spacecraft are designed by specialist avionics engineers (a blend of aviation and electronics) to control engine management, communications, navigation and the multitude of systems that perform individual functions - information displays, passenger comfort & entertainment, collision avoidance, fuel systems, flight recorders, weapons guidance.
There are enormous challenges in avionics design, both environmental and technological. From scorching deserts to cryogenic atmospheres and lightning storms, through sandstorms and dust clouds to explosions, shocks and extreme vibration, these systems must be fully ruggedized. As if surviving some of the toughest field conditions on the planet - and beyond - aren’t enough, avionics engineers are demanding smaller and lighter components that can be mounted in higher densities, consume less power, generate less heat and are standardised for maximum interoperability and service life.
Security presents a further challenge. Electronics are typically the most sensitive pieces of equipment on board and may need added protection against disruption from cyber attacks and electronic countermeasures (ECM), ranging from radar jamming and deception to a devastating electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack.
One area of avionics design that is sometimes overlooked is the role of connectors. Electronics engineers need to be aware of how greater functionality, higher data speeds, miniaturisation and ruggedization for harsh environments are impacting on the connectivity and infrastructure in the next generation of avionics.
As a franchised distributor, Astute Electronics not only offers a huge range of connectors designed for the aviation and aerospace industry but works closely with manufacturers in what is actually a highly complex area.
Pilots who have been flying for several decades have witnessed a gradual but dramatic evolution in cockpit design, as data-driven avionics systems take over many of the functions. The cockpit of today's airliner looks like science fiction when compared to those of a generation ago. Pilots are no longer faced with a sea of circular dials, and are much more likely to use a small number of multi-function displays (MFD).
This trend has been driven by the demands of military aviation. Third generation fighter aircraft such as the F-4 Phantom still use mechanical gauges to present information to the pilot. In the 1970s the fourth generation fighter began to take over. At the same time, the increased use of electronic warfare was demanding new and complicated systems be introduced. The designers of aircraft like the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the F-18 Hornet had to find ways for these new capabilities to be controlled by a single pilot. This simply could not be achieved with conventional dials.
Thus was born the multi-function display. By condensing a huge amount of information into a simple, easily understood picture, pilots could spend more time concentrating on their role of flying the aircraft rather than managing electronic systems.
At the same time, the head-up display (HUD) was reaching maturity. This is a device which takes the same combined information that might be shown on an MFD, and projects it onto a glass screen in the direct eye-line of the pilot. Suddenly, pilots could fly their aircraft with their "heads up" - looking out of the aircraft - instead of ‘heads down’, managing a huge array of dials, switches and controls.
You can imagine that, behind the screens, a huge amount of computing power was required to gather, combine and then present this information instantly to the pilot, and you would be correct.
If we look forward to the present day the MFD has become a standard tool, not just for fighter pilots but in commercial and even in general aviation.
The latest Boeing airliners are fitted with a HUD for each pilot, and the latest Cessna aircraft - designed for private pilots - are fitted with full-colour, programmable multi-function displays. Head-up displays are even available for cars now, showing quite how far this technology has spread.
The problem of connectivity remains, however. Such fantastic displays must combine inputs from such sources as engine management systems, the airframe (speed, altitude and attitude), and the latest GPS navigation systems. Each of these connections must perform without fault in an environment that is subject to vibration, acceleration and extremes of temperature. Failure could have life-threatening consequences.
Cockpit displays have come a long way in 50 years, and engineers need to be aware of the challenges that the latest technologies present. High data speeds, miniaturisation and improved functionality make new and interesting demands of the connectivity and infrastructure in the next generation of aviation electronics. The latest families of connectors are ready and able to take up those challenges.