Dubai Air Show

Airlab simulator helps hone Thales’ future

 - November 7, 2007, 10:44 AM

Thales Aerospace is using a unique air transport operational environment simulator at its Toulouse, France site to hone technology for future commercial aircraft programs, particularly the replacements for the current Airbus and Boeing single-aisle families.

Arnaud Ramé heads Thales’ Airlab advanced studies program, which is designed to address the entire scope of the company’s onboard equipment and optimize the coordination of its research and technology effort. Airlab, he said, was launched two years ago with the aim of “stimulating innovation, building solutions that meet the challenges of tomorrow’s commercial aerospace and ensuring we have competitive solutions when new programs come along.”

One challenge, he said, is to effect a smooth transition between research and technology and the subsequent production programs. “Often there is a gap, and it is not always easy to transfer the technology smoothly into programs,” he explained. The work includes studies funded by France’s civil aviation authority, the DGAC; the Aerospace Valley consortium of aerospace companies, local authorities and academic institutions in the Bordeaux and Toulouse regions; and the European Commission’s 6th and 7th Framework programs.

Ramé said Airlab uses models ranging from the very preliminary to actual mission software. “With this simulation we can imagine scenarios with as many aircraft and situations as we want and characterize the actual contribution of new capabilities in representative operational conditions, from the very early definition stages.”

It does so by assembling all the stakeholders in both the aircraft and the ground segment and testing them in the context of a global environment, which includes human participants representing air traffic control (ATC) and airline operations control (AOC) as well as the flight crew. “It is important to have people in the loop, including people who have to make decisions with the information provided to them,” Ramé said.

The program also addresses challenges such as future traffic growth in Europe, cost issues in the light of the airlines’ recent difficulties and the ongoing burden of fuel prices, and congestion at airports. “We want to make sure passengers arrive and depart on time with safety and security,” he said.

Because it includes all the participants, Airlab can help researchers define and assess the entire new-generation air traffic system, Ramé said, from quick prototyping and optimization of new concepts and features through pre-validation of the onboard functional architecture to full-up simulations and assessment of the results. “We are not simulating for the sake of simulation but assessing the operational value of concepts in terms of cost, punctuality, noise and emissions,” he said. “With those metrics we can close the loop and slowly but surely optimize concepts and functions.”

The project was launched with an investment of several million euros. It benefits from experience with other simulation laboratories in the military domain, including another Aerospace Valley project, the system-oriented UAV laboratory in Bordeaux.

A similar facility is being set up near Paris for ATM research, and there is another in Seattle, Washington. Thales believes no other group can match the breadth of capabilities represented in Airlab, which include both onboard and ATM systems and equipment plus simulation and training.

The concepts and procedures developed in the facility, such as the negotiation and clearance of four-dimensional trajectories as part of gate-to-gate traffic management, will form an input to the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) program which is developing the blueprint for Europe’s future ATM system. Thales is heavily involved in SESAR through its Air Traffic Alliance joint venture with Airbus and EADS and is managing the first phase, which concludes in March 2008.

Another focus is the Clean Sky Joint Technology Initiative (JTI). The JTI is “a new tool in the European research-and-technology toolbox,” Ramé said, one that enables the EC to launch projects that have significant time scales and budgets. “Clean Sky is within the framework and complements the SESAR initiative, looking at how to maximize ‘greenness’ by leveraging the available degrees of freedom to optimize the trajectory of aircraft,” he explained.

In the past, he said, “we would have set up facilities limited to the onboard segment but with Airlab we wanted to go further, so we added the ground segment and the exchange of information [through datalink and voice communications] because exchange of information will be one of the big enablers of the future.”

Airlab was built using Thales tools and products, “but we want to be able to connect with other systems, so it was built with an open architecture to be able to connect with other simulations.” This will be further addressed in another Aerospace Valley project called GAIA, whose aim is to define the best architecture to use for running distributed simulation. It also involves Airbus, the DGAC and the National Civil Aviation Training College. “We all have simulators, and the objective is to identify how we can run them together without having to relocate hardware,” Ramé said.  

New FMS Family Based on TopFlight

TopFlight FMS, a joint development by Thales and General Electric Aviation Systems (formerly Smiths Aerospace), was selected by customers for more than two thirds of the Airbus aircraft ordered in 2006 and is now forming the basis for a new FMS family.

The system, referred to as TopFlight FMS or FMS-2, was selected for 71 percent of the Airbus aircraft ordered. The figure was an impressive 78 percent for the A320 family, while the 28 percent specified for A330/340 orders reflect the fact that the product was certified for that platform only recently.

Flight management systems program manager Philippe Cambon told AIN that compared with rival FMS systems, the main improvements offered by the new system include a faster response time, increased database capacity and enhanced functionality for pilots.

One major new feature is a temporary flight plan, enabling crews to view a draft of a flight plan before activating it. If direct-to-waypoint is keyed in, for example, the route is shown in yellow text on the multifunction control and display unit (MCDU) and depicted on the navigation display by a dotted line. When the flight plan is modified in this way with aircraft changes or constraints the crew can make the temporary flight plan active or keep it as an alternate and follow the active flight plan while continuing to work on the temporary one.

The TopFlight system also shows the actual flight path through a turn instead of an abrupt angle onto the new course–“the real trajectory rather than a simplified one,” said Cambon. “What you see is what you fly.”

A worldwide navigation database is another feature. “The FMS-2 has a seven-megabyte database, combined with used compression design, that is the largest available on an Airbus aircraft at the moment and can make any flight worldwide,” Cambon said. The system also uses the same software in both single-aisle and long-range aircraft applications.

A military derivative of the FMS-2 used on the A330 multi-role tanker transport for the Royal Australian Air Force is modified in line with changes to the aircraft and to enable it to handle refueling operations.

The dedicated FMS development facility in Toulouse includes a replica flight deck with real FMS units, displays and MCDUs, as well as a software integration bench.
Thales has launched a new FMS product family for A400 military transport, this time without Smiths’ involvement. “We never close the door to cooperation, but for future platforms we have the capability to work alone,” Cambon said.

The next objective is to use this new Thales FMS generation as a platform for new concepts, “so for future products our strategy is to have different functions that can be plugged in for air transport, military, business jet or regional aircraft,” he added.

To reduce the requirement for frequent changes of software, Thales is also adopting a new software architecture. “Everybody tries to put an operating system in just to minimize the interaction between the software and the hardware,” Cambon explained. Thales is adding a middleware concept between the hardware platform and the Arinc 653 operating system to support a plug-and-play concept for new functions.

“Today if you want to modify a function you have to modify [the entire system],” he said. “The aim is to be able to modify only the individual functions.” The philosophy is the same as that applied in Thales’ air traffic management equipment, which also uses middleware to separate functionality and hardware. This concept has already been applied to Thales’ new-generation flight management system.

The result should be dramatic reductions in both cost and delivery schedules, Cambon said. “Our target is to reduce the price for modification of the software by 30 percent,” he said.