Next generation avionics: from aircraft to spaceship

Author : Geoff Hill | Founder & Managing Director | Astute Electronics

01 July 2022

Figure 1. The modern airliner flight deck
Figure 1. The modern airliner flight deck

High data speeds, miniaturisation & improved functionality increasingly place new demands on the connectivity & infrastructure in the next generation of avionics, as aircraft transform into flying data centres, says Geoff Hill, founder & Managing Director at electronic component distributor, Astute Electronics…

This article was originally featured in the July 2022 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. And sign up to receive your own copy each month.

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 deliver unprecedented collection and transmission of data. Through thousands of sensors and sophisticated digital 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 management consulting firm, Oliver Wyman – that’s a whopping 5-8 terabytes per flight!

The ‘flying data centres’ analogy rings true

We can’t 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 two tragic Boeing 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people – eventually prompting the grounding of all 737 Max planes worldwide for more than a year during 2019 and 2020. Investigations suggest that sensors may have been feeding incorrect data to the MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), leading to a series of events that put the plane into a nosedive.

Challenges of avionics design

Figure 2. Third generation fighter cockpit – the F-4 Phantom
Figure 2. Third generation fighter cockpit – the F-4 Phantom

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 (a blend of aviation and electronics) engineers to control engine management, communications, navigation and the multitude of systems that perform individual functions – including information displays, passenger comfort and entertainment, collision avoidance, fuel systems, flight recorders, weapons guidance... a truly dizzying array.

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 ruggedised. As if surviving some of the toughest field conditions on the planet – and beyond – isn’t enough, avionics engineers are also 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.

Making the right connections  

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 ruggedisation 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 also works closely with manufacturers in what is actually a highly complex area.

Figure 3. Fourth generation fighter cockpit, showing MFDs & HUD – the F-18 Hornet
Figure 3. Fourth generation fighter cockpit, showing MFDs & HUD – the F-18 Hornet

Cockpit evolution: from aircraft to spacecraft

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 used 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.

Figure 4. Modern Cessna Skyhawk cockpit
Figure 4. Modern Cessna Skyhawk cockpit

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 diverse sources as engine management systems, the airframe (speed, altitude and attitude), and the latest GPS (Global Positioning System) 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.

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