The impact of ongoing innovations in all areas of ground-based electronics results in many questions. We sought answers from Randy Robertson, chief engineer of the Boeing Commercial Aircraft Group at the Boeing Company, regarding innovations in future aircraft.
ED: What are some of the electronic developments that will be crucial in the evolution of aircraft in the future?
Robertson: We're exploring the viability of wireless communications between an airplane's on-board computer systems (within the airplane), as well as wireless connections between an airplane and airports. We call the latter "Gatelink." Transmitted information can range from essential data for the flight crew for a flight plan to on-board movies for entertainment. We envision Gatelink as a solution that will do away with having to move a great deal of physical media, which today is carted on and off of an airplane.
Information exchange over Gatelink will occur right at the gate. Interference issues at the gate make it impractical to use existing HF and VHF links on an airplane to exchange a lot of data.
Safety is an important issue here. We want to reduce, or even eliminate, radiation near people. That means no large RF fields in the vicinity of passengers and ground personnel. HF and VHF equipment also was designed for voice and telemetry, so it lacks the bandwidth needed to move large amounts of data at high speed.
ED: Are those efforts aimed solely at passenger entertainment?
Robertson: Not really. We're initially looking at real-time Internet access and live TV, but we want to expand the airplane's capability to transfer information between the crew and the ground.
We're also looking at displaying some of the information that flight crews bring on board in those big tote bags—very heavy handbooks, flight manuals, and charts—for the routes they're flying and the approaches to airports where they land. We want to provide the flight deck with both faster access and more information. We hope to replace all that paper on the flight deck with information that's either uplinked from the ground before takeoff or uplinked in real time during flight. Instead of a pilot pulling out what's called a Jeppesen chart to look at an approach, it can simply be displayed on a screen.
The bottom line is to move large amounts of data around the airplane and to do it fast. When you talk about such applications, response time is critical. If a pilot wants to examine an approach chart, it can't take 10 seconds to come up on the screen. The same goes for passengers. Nobody will want to use in-flight Internet access in the back if there's a 30-second delay between submission and reply.
ED: What can we expect in wireless and fiber-optic communications within the aircraft?
Robertson: We're always looking to reduce the amount of wire and thereby reduce weight, lower manufacturing costs, and reduce our customer's maintenance costs. Every box that talks to another box over copper within the aircraft is a candidate for a changeover to a wireless interconnection. We're also looking to expand the use of fiber optics on airplanes to give us much more bandwidth and practically eliminate EMI, a major issue with copper.
ED: What other technologies are you looking at?
Robertson: We're investigating microelectromechanical-system (MEMS) sensors, but they're still a few years away. Our initial application will probably be to replace gyro components with MEMS components. Today we use ring-laser and fiber-optic gyros. But MEMS devices are extraordinarily small, and their reliability may turn out to be very attractive as well. There's concern about their accuracy. The output of the azimuth axis of a platform is usually linked with data from other sources, such as GPS and a magnetic compass.
ED: What about heads-up displays?
Robertson: A heads-up display (HUD) is a supplemental visual system that projects on the windscreen information traditionally displayed on the instrument panel. It has been around for approximately 20 years, but what has been missing is a standard interface. Customer interest in HUDs is growing. We're looking at ways to integrate HUDs with the rest of the flight-deck equipment. We're in the process of establishing a common HUD interface so that the HUD suppliers will know exactly what information the airplane manufacturer will supply.
Major Airframe Manufacturers Sees Bandwidth, Fibre Optics, MEMs and Wireless As Crucial To Aircraft In The Coming Century
As chief engineer of avionics for the Boeing Commercial Airplane Group, The Boeing Co, Seattle, WA, Randy Robertson charts the course for his group of some 300 who are responsible for the development of the primary displays that the pilot and copilot uses—such as airspeed, attitude, and flight plan. They also engineer the radio equipment for communication and navigation radios that embrace functions such as TCAS (traffic alert and collision avoidance system) and ground proximity warning systems. Robertson's group is responsible for all of the above for all Boeing commercial aircraft built in the Puget Sound region of Washington state.
When something is ready it doesn't necessarily mean that it will be installed on every airplane that we roll out in the coming monthor even in the next year. Because an important issue to us is what we call the "insertion point". We may have something ready, but it may be so radically different that we will decide to wait for a new derivative airplane model before we introduce it.
Or we may wait until we make significant change in a production run of an airplane. It is then that we will collect some of these innovations and modify the design all at once.
When you have airplanes that last for 30 years, as they do today, introducing new technology becomes quite problematic. And it's because of the retrofit issue. If we introduce something into production we must consider what are we going to do with the airplanes out in the field. Is it a retrofittable solution? If it is not then the airlines wind up with split fleets. This means that the new airplane they received last month and the one that will arrive this month are different. That causes them pain.
A lot of things we look at are not necessarily new technologies. But instead we are putting existing technologies to use in a different way. Using satellites to broadcast data is nothing new, but were continuing to look at that. We uses the generic term datalink to identify communications between air traffic control and the airplane. We also use it to identify communications between the airline company and the airplane. There is a lot of information being exchanged between the ground and the airplane today. And in our newer models we datalink diagnostic information.
As to the future, we can expect that the data flow both within the aircraft and between the aircraft and the ground will continue to rise.