Though it has yet to be officially inaugurated, the brand new avionics campus that the Thales group has built at Mérignac, near the French city of Bordeaux, is already home to some 2,600 staff and has been operational for several months. The level of employment at the new facility will soon reach 3,000 people, with most of them being engineers involved in both civil and military programs covering a wide array of cockpit and cabin technologies. “This is the center of all our competencies, platforms, critical systems and next generation avionics,” said Peter Hitchcock, Thales vice president and commercial aviation managing director at the new Mérignac campus.
According to Thales (Chalet 263/Static Display B1), its path for market growth is defined the anticipated delivery of around 33,000 aircraft globally over the next 20 years—in part driven by the emergence of new so-called ‘mega-cities’ mainly in the Asia Pacific region. Before that 20 years is up—by 2025—the France-based electronics group predicts an end to the Airbus and Boeing duopoly over the commercial aviation sector.
Thales sees the digitization of the industry as a key opportunity, and it is pursuing this under a package of solutions that it calls EcoSystem. “Data is the new oil of the aerospace industry and fuel prices are now not such important drivers of airline strategies,” commented Vincent Megaides, Thales’s strategy director for flight avionics. He pointed to imminently achievable goals such as connecting pilot’s tablet electronic devices to cockpit avionics in a cyber secure environment. Significantly, Thales stressed that safety-critical equipment like fly-by-wire flight controls will remain completely unconnected to the Internet.
Thales is not planning to remove the operational segregation between cockpit and cabin systems. However, it is working on a new generation of satellite communication technology—through its Thales Alenia Space subsidiary—with a view to boosting the datalink capability of the L-band satcom used in the cockpit and the Ku/Ka-band in the cabin, as well as simplifying the on-board architecture and allowing available broadband coverage to be shared more efficiently. The new architecture could be ready for service in 2019 or 2020 and would result in weight and cost savings for some equipment, such as HF radios.
At a press briefing in May, Thales officials told reporters that the future cockpit will be simpler and more intuitive, partly through the use of touchscreen displays. At this year’s Paris Air Show, the European group (Static Display B1) will exhibit a four-screen unit that it says will deliver a 40 percent reduction in power consumption and weight compared with the hardware in existing avionics suites.
Another goal of the new cockpit technology is that pilots are only presented with the information they need at that time instead of being overloaded with data on each display. “From the beginning, we have designed this cockpit to be completely connected, even for non-critical systems like aircraft mission management,” explained Guillaume Lapeyronnie, marketing director of Thales’s flight avionics unit.
The next generation of the electronic flight bag (EFB) developed by the Thales team at Mérignac will be fully connected to the flight management system (FMS). This approach allows flight crew to update all key data back at their hotel room, including weather forecasts, flight plans, etc.
“This is an in-development project because we still have to guarantee the integrity of the data when the pilot connects the EFB to the FMS,” said Lapeyronnie. To address this challenge, Thales in April acquired U.S. big data and cyber security specialist Guavus.
To further tap the power of connectivity in the flight preparation process, Thales has developed a new tool called FlytOptim to optimize navigation for on-time arrivals. The pilot enters the planned time of arrival, and the system—using key data such as wind, takeoff performance, etc.—calculates an optimized flight plan and fuel consumption that are then registered in the FMS.
According to Thales, it already has an undisclosed launch customer for FlytOptim. The system can adjust plans en route, for instance to respond to issues such as non-forecasted meteorological event. In future, changes such as these will be automatically relayed to operators’ support teams on the ground.