Thales mulls future aircraft systems today

 - June 16, 2009, 2:03 AM

How will airplanes operate in 2030? The question needs addressing now since new aircraft introduced then are likely to be in production for another 30 years and in service for 50. Thales has been pondering it for the last two years, and last month the company convened a symposium in Paris to unveil its concept of the smart, communicating aircraft.

Thales spends 20 percent of its revenues on research and development, and “the current crisis doesn’t mean we should stop,” said Thales Aerospace senior vice president Jean-Georges Malcor. “Our industry is underpinned by long cycles, given the 50-year life of aircraft programs, so it is time to accelerate, not cut.”

Thales does not pretend to have “the key of the future on our own,” Malcor added, but is working with universities such as Bordeaux’s Cognitive Institute. “The goal is to fast forward to 2030 to make sure the communicating aircraft is a reality,” he said.

Joël Bosson, a system architecture expert from Thales research and technology, examined various aspects of the mission, the concept of the gate-to-gate operation that is at the heart of both the European Sesar and U.S. NextGen air traffic management  modernization efforts.

The initial preoccupations in flying were to navigate safely, avoiding obstacles and locating the destination runway, while air traffic control clearances kept aircraft from colliding with each other. At some point in the future, though, increasing numbers will mean there are too many aircraft for controllers to handle, and Sesar has included self separation among the techniques to be introduced.

That will require a global telecommunications network, Bosson said, along with new task-sharing mechanisms so that pilot and controller can negotiate a contract for the operation, and an airborne function able to handle pilot requests for variations in the agreed trajectory.

The Sperry autopilot of the 1930s was the first system to take over some of the pilot’s tasks, Bosson said. But that was part of what he characterized as human operations, with the airplane under manual control and the computer executing commands initiated by the pilot. The 1980s saw the introduction of aided operations using flight management systems: the computer generates tactics, the pilot decides and control is by tactical request.

By 2025 autonomous operations will require a mission management system. That will mean the computer generating solutions and proposing a preference; the pilot will be informed and will be able to override it, but his control will be essentially supervisory. Beyond that, Bosson said, adaptive operations may see the pilot in executive control, with the computer making decisions as well as generating solutions, and informing the pilot when required.

UK technical director Barry Trimmer sees connectivity as an enabler, not just for flight control, or the aviate function, but also for broader airline operational and passenger functions. The aviate function can already involve 30 or more radios plus their associated antennas. Trimmer suggested that integrated modular radios constructed from scalable modules might be able to reduce that equipment burden.

Ultimately, Trimmer said he looks forward to an integrated connectivity architecture that would also support real-time optimization of the mission, including maintenance requirements, and a passenger experience in which the traveler’s personal or business experience is not constricted by bandwidth or other limitations.

The same level of connectivity could also support much more capable health management systems, said Brett Wells, Thales Aerospace Services strategy and business development director. He added that he looks forward to a completely connected, network-centric model with both aircraft- and ground-based distributed systems. That, he said, would support not just individual aircraft monitoring but cross-fleet and global fleet solutions.

Among the benefits would be the assurance of safe operations under future air traffic management regimes. That in turn would require some man-to-system delegation of fault analysis and prediction, plus the reconfiguration of aircraft to maintain operations within ATM environment rules.

Dennis Bonnet, head of safety, interaction and human factors for Thales Aerospace cockpit interactive solutions, said the next logical stage in an ongoing process of workload optimization that has seen the number of flight crew reduced to two is single-pilot operation. But aircraft continue to increase in complexity, and man-machine interaction error remains a contributory factor in more than 50 percent of transport aircraft incidents.

Thales’s vision, Bonnet said, is of a crew-centered cockpit, one whose man-machine interface adapts to the crew’s needs, providing them with appropriate tools and information for current tasks as well as enabling them to anticipate upcoming tasks.
Inputs to its design will include the latest research in such fields as cognitive resource management, intention detection, human error management and adaptive interfaces. It will also need to be customizable for individual crewmembers and varying types of airline operation.

To enable crews to manage the increasing complexity, Bonnet suggested, data fusion will be used to provide a summary of the available information, possibly in the form of a complete, integrated head-up display system or combined vision system in which synthetic elements are superimposed on the pilot’s view of the real world.

Data fusion will also support the strategic situation representation that Bonnet predicted will become the main mission management tool of the future. And to enable pilots to understand and manage an increasingly complex and automated system, they will need an intuitive representation of the status of key aircraft functions.

But will there be any need for a pilot? Absolutely, asserted Airbus training and operations vice president Jean-Michel Roy, who cited the example of one of his company’s aircraft that was hit by a missile and lost hydraulic power after taking off from Baghdad. “There is no modelized solution to that,” he said. “We had one person who in a few minutes learned to fly an airplane that wasn’t flyable.”

Left with only engine controls, “he found that by manipulating the throttle he could lift the nose, and use the controls asymmetrically to yaw,” Roy said. “That’s why you need an intelligent person–to deal with situations like that.” The aircraft landed safely. “People are just wonderful,” he commented. “They need systems to help them, not replace them.”

Is there a danger that there will be so much help that airlines will be tempted to lower qualification standards? The Airbus vision, Roy said, is, “We have to make things simple. It doesn’t mean we have to make them stupid.” The electronic crew alerting and monitoring system, he pointed out is “a representation of the various systems that is as simple as possible.”

But the fact that a very complex system is represented by one simple box that can be on or off  “does not mean that we consider the pilots stupid. It means that we want to present an easy way to understand a complex situation so that he can make an informed decision.”