Evolving Aircraft Cockpit Technologies

anil chopra, air power asia, Cockpits, Technologies

A cockpit or flight deck is the area, usually near the front of an aircraft or spacecraft, from which a pilot controls the aircraft. The cockpit of an aircraft contains flight instruments on an instrument panel, and the controls that enable the pilot to fly the aircraft. In most airliners, a door separates the cockpit from the aircraft cabin. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, all major airlines fortified their cockpits against access by hijackers.

Fortified Cockpits. Image Source: transportationtodaynews.com

The Name – Anything to do with Cock-Fighting

The word cockpit seems to have been used as a nautical term in the 17th century, without reference to cock fighting. It referred to an area in the rear of a ship where the cockswain’s station was located. The cockswain being the pilot of a smaller “boat” that could be dispatched from the ship to board another ship or to bring people ashore. The word “cockswain” in turn derives from the old English terms for “boat-servant” (coque is the French word for “shell”; and swain was old English for boy or servant). The midshipmen and master’s mates were later berthed in the cockpit, and it served as the action station for the ship’s surgeon and his mates during battle. Thus by the 18th century, “cockpit” had come to designate an area in the rear lower deck of a warship where the wounded were taken. The same term later came to designate the place from which a sailing vessel is steered, because it is also located in the rear, and is often in a well or “pit”.

Cock fighting pits. Image Source: thai-blogs.com

Though, there is a reference to the cock fighting too. According to the Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, the buildings in London where the king’s cabinet worked (the Treasury and the Privy Council) were called the “Cockpit” because they were built on the site of a theater called The Cockpit (torn down in 1635), which itself was built in the place where a “cockpit” for cock-fighting had once stood prior to the 1580s. Thus the word Cockpit came to mean a control center. This meaning no doubt influenced both lines of evolution of the term, since a cockpit in this sense was a tight enclosure where a great deal of stress or tension would occur.

Cockpit in Court. Image Source: Wikipedia

From about 1935, cockpit came to be used informally to refer to the driver’s cabin, especially in high performance cars, and this is official terminology used to describe the compartment that the driver occupies in a “Formula One” car. In an airliner, the cockpit is usually referred to as the flight deck, the term deriving from its use by the RAF for the separate, upper platform in large flying boats where the pilot and co-pilot sat. In the US and many other countries, however, the term cockpit is also used for airliners. The seat of a powerboat racing craft is also referred to as the cockpit.

Formula One Car Cockpits. Image Source: You Tube

Aircraft Canopies Evolve

The first airplane with an enclosed cabin appeared in 1912 on the Avro Type F; however, during the early 1920s there were many passenger aircraft in which the crew remained open to the air while the passengers sat in a cabin. Military biplanes and the first single-engined fighters and attack aircraft also had open cockpits, some as late as the Second World War when enclosed cockpits became the norm. In the mid-1920s many aircraft manufacturers began using enclosed cockpits for the first time. Early airplanes with closed cockpits include the 1924 Fokker F.VII, the 1926 German Junkers W 34 transport, the 1926 Ford Trimotor, the 1927 Lockheed Vega, the Spirit of St. Louis and the passenger aircraft manufactured by the Douglas and Boeing companies during the mid-1930s.

F-22 Canopy. Image Source: commons.wikimedia.org

The largest impediment to having closed cabins was the material used to make the windows. Prior to Perspex becoming available in 1933, windows were either safety glass, which was heavy, or cellulose nitrate (i.e.: guncotton), which yellowed quickly and was extremely flammable. Open-cockpit airplanes were almost extinct by the mid-1950s, with the exception of training planes, crop-dusters and homebuilt aircraft designs. Cockpit windows in some cases were being equipped with a sun shields. Most cockpits have windows that can be opened when the aircraft is on the ground. Nearly all glass windows in large aircraft have an anti-reflective coating, and an internal heating element to melt ice. Smaller aircraft were equipped with a transparent aircraft canopy.

Cockpit Layouts Evolve

Except for some helicopters, the “right seat” in the cockpit of an aircraft is the seat used by the co-pilot. The captain or pilot in command sits in the left seat, so that they can operate the throttles and other pedestal instruments with their right hand. The tradition has been maintained to this day, with the co-pilot on the right hand side. In most cockpits the pilot’s control column or joystick is located centrally (centre stick), although in some military fast jets the side-stick is located on the right hand side. In some commercial airliners (i.e.: Airbus—which features the glass cockpit concept) both pilots use a side-stick located on the outboard side, so Captain’s side-stick on the left and First-officer’s seat on the right.

F-16 Viper Cockpit layout. Image Source: fighterjetsworld.com

Ergonomics and Human Factors concerns are important in the design of modern cockpits. The layout and function of cockpit displays controls are designed to increase pilot situation awareness without causing information overload. In the past, many cockpits, especially in fighter aircraft, limited the size of the pilots that could fit into them. Now, cockpits are being designed to accommodate from the 1st percentile female physical size to the 99th percentile male size. The layout of the cockpit, especially in the military fast jet, has undergone standardisation, both within and between aircraft, manufacturers and even nations. An important development was the “Basic Six” pattern, later the “Basic T”, developed from 1937 onwards by the Royal Air Force, designed to optimise pilot instrument scanning.

Modern Cockpit Concepts

The modern cockpits do not anymore have those traditional “knobs and dials”. Instrument panels are now almost wholly replaced by electronic displays, which are themselves often re-configurable to save space. While some hard-wired dedicated switches are still there for safety, but most traditional controls are replaced by multi-function re-configurable controls or “soft keys”. Controls are incorporated onto the stick and throttle to enable the pilot to maintain a head-up and eyes-out position, and are called “Hands on Throttle and Stick” or HOTAS. These controls are further augmented by Helmet Mounted Sighting System or Direct voice input (DVI). Advances in auditory displays allow for Direct Voice Output of aircraft status information and for the spatial localisation of warning sounds for improved monitoring of aircraft systems.

HOTAS Controls. Image Source: Wikipedia

The layout of control panels in modern airliners has nearly got standardised. Selections for automatic flight controls such as the autopilot are normally placed just below the windscreen and above the main instrument panel for access during critical phases without having to look inside the cockpit. A central concept in the design of the cockpit is the Design Eye Position or “DEP”, from which point all displays should be visible. Most modern cockpits also include some kind of integrated warning system.HUD systems that project information directly onto the wearer’s retina with a low-powered laser (virtual retinal display) are also in experimentation. A virtual retinal display (VRD), also known as a retinal scan display (RSD) or retinal projector (RP), is a display technology that draws a raster display (like a television) directly onto the retina of the eye. The user sees what appears to be a conventional display floating in space in front of them.

Flight Instruments basic T arrangement . Image Source: lavionnaire.fr

Flight instruments

In the modern electronic cockpit, the electronic flight instruments usually regarded as essential are MFD, PFD, ND, EICAS, FMS/CDU and back-up instruments. The main multi-function display (MFD), located centrally in front of the pilot, may be used to control heading, speed, altitude, vertical speed, vertical navigation and lateral navigation. It may also be used to engage or disengage both the autopilot and the auto-throttle in large aircraft. The primary flight display (PFD) is usually located in a prominent position, either centrally or on either side of the cockpit. It will in most cases include a digitised presentation of the attitude indicator, air speed and altitude indicators (usually as a tape display) and the vertical speed indicator. It will in many cases include some form of heading indicator and ILS/VOR deviation indicators. In many cases an indicator of the engaged and armed auto-flight system modes will be present along with some form of indication of the selected values for altitude, speed, vertical speed and heading. It may be pilot selectable to swap with the ND. ND is the navigation display, which may be adjacent to the PFD, shows the route and information on the next waypoint, wind speed and wind direction. It may be pilot selectable to swap with the PFD. The Engine Indication and Crew Alerting System (EICAS) or Electronic Centralised Aircraft Monitor (ECAM) allows the pilot to monitor the engine, fuel system, temperature, electrical system, cockpit or cabin temperature and pressure, control surfaces and so on. The flight management system/control unit (FMS) may be used by the pilot to enter and check flight plan, speed control, navigation control, and so on.

Chinese J-20 Cockpit. Image Source: chinesemilitaryreview.blogspot.com

Back-up Instruments

In a less prominent part of the cockpit, in case of failure of the other instruments, there will be a battery-powered integrated standby instrument system along with a magnetic compass, showing essential flight information such as speed, altitude, attitude and heading.

Back UpInstruments even in Glass cockpits. Image Source: aviation.stackexchange.com

Flexible Software Solutions

Fully digital “glass cockpit” use a user interface markup language known as ARINC 661. This standard defines the interface between an independent cockpit display system and other systems and also allows for specialisation and independence. Flexible Software Solutions introduced COTS developing, testing and analysis tools for ARINC 661 protocol at the beginning of 2012.

ARINC 661 Architecture. Image Source: presagis.com

Cockpit Automation and Safety

Modern aircraft are increasingly reliant on automation for safe and efficient operation. However, automation also has the potential to cause significant incidents when misunderstood or mishandled. Furthermore, automation may result in an aircraft developing an undesirable state from which it is difficult or impossible to recover using traditional hand flying techniques. Automation allows improved flight path control and reduced weather minima; better systems monitoring displays coupled with diagnostic assistance systems using electronic monitoring and systems handling for flight and engine; better failure alerts and management; enhanced pilots’ and maintenance staff’s understanding of aircraft system states; and increases passenger comfort. Automation also relieves pilots from repetitive or non-rewarding tasks and leaves them more for a monitoring role. But humans are particularly poor at doing this effectively or for long periods. As an example, pilots who invariably fly with Autothrottle (AT) engaged can quickly lose the habit of scanning speed indications. Therefore, when the AT disengages, either by design or following a malfunction, the pilots will not notice or react to even large speed deviations.

Cockpit Automation. Image Source: thenextweb.com

Automation has its disadvantages. Basic manual and cognitive flying skills can decline because of lack of practice and feel for the aircraft. Uncommanded disengagement caused by a system failure resulting in mode reversion or inappropriate mode engagement by the pilot may lead to adverse consequences. Attending to automation can distract the flight/crew pilots from monitoring flight path. Short notice changes by ATC may require reprogramming and add intense workload. Diagnostic systems have limitations for dealing with multiple failures and there may be situations that may require deviations from pre-fed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Unanticipated situations requiring manual override of automation and can induce peaks of workload and stress. Data entry errors may have critical consequences, and need sufficient cross-checks. It may be difficult to understand the situation and to gain/regain control when automation reaches the limit of its operation domain and disconnects or in case of automation failure. This will add workload. Automation dependency, inadequate systems knowledge and a lack of manual flying and aircraft management competence are a deadly cocktail combination.

There are some safety issues arising directly from automation dependency. Pilots are often reluctant to voluntarily reduce the extent to which they use full automation capability to deal with routine or abnormal situations. The full automation capability is for some reason no longer available, and reluctance to go fully manual.

New Human-Machine Interface Technologies

A research paper written by Katherine Plant, Catherine Harvey, & Neville Stanton, for Faculty of Engineering and Environment, University of Southampton, highlights some of the new cockpit Human-Machine Interface (HMI) technologies. Large research efforts have been devoted to understanding the associated cognitive factors such as situation awareness, workload and error, in addition to technological factors such as display design, HMI and automation. New breakthrough technologies have been introduced in both fixed-wing and rotary-wing cockpits. All Condition Operations and Innovative Cockpit Infrastructure (ALICIA) is a project that aims to develop new and scalable cockpit applications that can extend operations of aircraft in degraded conditions. It is meant to establish a common cockpit philosophy between different aircraft types and, ambitiously, between fixed and rotary-wing aircraft too. Touchscreens allow the user to provide direct, context-sensitive interaction. They are in use as inter-seat controllers and armrest controllers and in instrument panels and multi-function display units. There is commonality and scalability. They also allow savings in use of scares cockpit real-estate. These screens promote situational awareness, and better HMI.  

Deep Blue. New Cockpit Automation Solutions. Image Source: dblue.it

There are issues of course. Touchscreens require direct interaction and therefore their positioning is limited by reach, which has consequences for the location of displays. They can cause elbow or eyesight fatigue. Effective touch-based interaction under conditions of turbulence or vibration could be of concern. There remains a need for indirect device as a backup. Thus new input devices being evolved in future cockpits. The Trackball, a ball held in a socket and rolled using the hand or fingers. They are advantageous in areas where there is limited surface space for device manipulation. The Rotary controller can be rotated, pushed down or moved up/down/left/right in order to control the movements and actions of an on-screen cursor. Rotary controllers have been shown to produce faster task performance than other indirect input devices.

Modern Trackball controls. Image Source: concept-frenoy.fr

Touchpad comprises a tactile surface which is capable of sensing the movement of a person’s fingers and translating this into actions of an on-screen cursor. Like trackballs, they require little space for installation and manipulation. However, trackballs can require more complex manipulations when compared with other input devices. Direct Voice Input (DVI) is likely to be the most flexible input application used in future cockpits. It has the potential to be used for a variety of tasks including radio tuning, navigation functions and checklist procedures. However, the usefulness of DVI is currently outweighed by a host of technical problems such as adapting the vocabulary to be suitable for all accents, identifying individual speakers in multi-speaker environments and suppressing background noise.

Direct Voice Input (DVI). Image Source: “COCKPIT DISPLAYS & CONTROL”— Presentation. slideplayer.com

3D audio technology aims to improve situation awareness during fixed obstacle avoidance manoeuvring for rotorcraft. It has the potential to optimise crew workload in high communication density environments by spatially separating multiple simultaneous voice channels. This would require headsets and to track pilots’ head movements, because there is a small area in which this technology will work and it is dependent on the listener’s head position and orientation.

The use of eyes out displays and appropriate symbology is considered to be a key enabler for enhancing operations in degraded visual environments and enhancing situation awareness. Due to operational differences, the fixed-wing civil aircraft prefer Head Up Display (HUD) solutions, whereas rotary-wing prefer Head Mounted Displays (HMD). The eyes out displays include both primary flight information and relevant conformal symbology. They allow the pilot to look through the displays to see the outside world. Displays are aligned at infinity so that the pilot can view real world objects and be presented with information on the display without having to adjust eye focus.

Head Mounted Displays (HMD). Image Source: researchgate.net

Current HUD technology has a limited field of view and so for longer civil flights the pilot must either maintain an uncomfortable position for extended periods or deviate from the design eye reference point, which has the potential for missed information. It is intended that these display interfaces will implement an augmented reality approach to allow for the presentation of 3D information onto the interface. In rotary-wing operations conformal symbology will be used to provide virtual 3D on route, approach and landing references, as well as primary flight and status data. The use of HUD symbology for fixed-wing aircraft is intended to provide significant capability enhancement for all conditions operations for taxiing, take-off and approach/landing. Expected benefits of the advanced displays would include enhanced situation awareness and increased safety with regards to airborne obstacles and navigation hazards.

Head Up Display (HUD). Image Source: forums.robertsspaceindustries.com

With any introduction of new technology, as old problems are addressed, new issues may arise. The human factors discipline has an important role to play in the evaluation of new technologies to ensure that both physical performance and cognitive processing is optimised to enable successful task performance.

Single-Pilot and Autonomous Plane Issues

Both Boeing and Airbus have been looking at single pilot operations in commercial jetliners. This could cut costs for carriers. Technologies for such an approach are already in place. That will also open the path for unpiloted operation. The path is similar to what is happening in surface transportation like cars and ships. Plane manufacturers are developing artificial intelligence that will one day enable computers to fly planes without human beings at the controls, like is already happening in case of military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).  In case of commercial flights won’t be easy initially. After a Germanwings pilot flew an A320 plane into the French Alps in March 2015, killing all 150 people on board, many airlines around the world made at least two people in the cockpit mandatory at all times. In addition, there is no transport-category aircraft certificated for a single pilot or pilotless flight yet. It’s unclear whether passengers or their insurers or carriers would accept or permit it. Airbus has a division called Urban Air Mobility that is exploring technology from on-demand helicopter rides to delivery drones. Boeing said last month it purchased a company that is developing flying taxis for Uber Technologies Inc. and also bought into a hybrid-electric airplane company. They are exploring technologies that will bring more automation to the cockpit of planes that could help resolve shortage of pilots in many countries. Boeing estimates that 637,000 pilots will be needed to fly commercial aircraft globally in the next two decades. The industry needs to find ways to produce more cockpit crew.

Single Pilot with Robot. Image Source: airspacemag.com

The common theme between automated and autonomous systems is the need for the human to set the high-level goals and to monitor the system. It is a misconception, not helped by terms such as, ‘unmanned’, that there is no human involvement required. The modern flight deck, while possessing a high degree of automation, still requires a large degree of supervision and monitoring from the flight crew, and the pilots need to be able to intervene when external factors require changes to the initial plan for the flight. The same will be true of the single pilot airliner, irrespective of how the technology is implemented. The single crew airliner is still probably 20 years away, however with the legislative developments in the USA it is possible that the single pilot cargo aircraft may be closer to becoming a reality. This will invariably pave the way for single crew airline operations and provide the opportunity to develop the technology required.

Single-Pilot Airline Flights Are a Long Way Off. Image Source: thepointsguy.com

To support a single-pilot cockpit, French Air and Space Academy (AAE) and NASA Ames/Rockwell Collins research recommends a ground-based operator, much like today’s military drone operators who control aircraft from half a world away. Pilot-Ground operators (PGs), would be qualified as pilots, including holding a type rating. The AAE estimates one PG can simultaneously manage up to five flights in short-to-medium-haul operations. In the NASA “super-dispatcher” concept, a trained pilot could remotely oversee the flights of as many as a dozen aircraft at once. If an airborne pilot needed help because of equipment malfunction or medical emergency, the ground-based aviator could help fly the aircraft.

The airline flight crews who participated in their single-pilot simulator-based research “weren’t as negative as I thought they would be,” said NASA research psychologist Walter Johnson. “They don’t want to fly alone, but what I got from them was that, with a copilot on the ground, it probably would work.” “The main issue for single-pilot operations is cybersecurity,” said Joel B. Lachter, NASA computer scientist. “In order for it to be done safely, automation or ground operators would need authority to be able to step in in the case of off-nominal issues such as pilot incapacitation. If they can eliminate the cybersecurity threats surrounding those operations, I think it is feasible.”

Things are evolving and one day passengers will fly with a single and later no pilot in the cockpit.

Header Image Source: hangar.flights

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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