Inside the cockpit: mile-high computing

The computers responsible for the take-off and landing of up to 8,000 flights in UK airspace every day are no ordinary computers.

They keep those planes safe and stable through the most punishing weather conditions, and ensure that we get from one continent to another in one piece. They are among the most stringently tested and carefully maintained computers in the world, because if they fail, people die.

And yet many of these computers are significantly less powerful than the laptop PC you have at home. Welcome to the world of 21st-century avionics.

Barring small planes and helicopters, the days of manual flight in civil aviation are long gone. The combination of digital fly-by-wire control, flight-management systems and the autopilot has transformed the pilot’s role to the extent that it’s now popularly believed that the captain has little to do beyond flicking switches and practising his Received Pronunciation over the PA. This is a massive simplification, but not without a grain of truth.

When we fly on a commercial airline, we rely on computers to keep us moving comfortably in the right direction and even, in some circumstances, land us safely on solid ground. In the military sphere, it’s computing power that gives pilots the edge against hostile forces and the information they need to make life or death decisions.

Over the next few pages, we’re going to examine these computers and the tasks they perform. We’ll also look at how they’re evolving to save airlines time and money, reduce emissions and make flying safer.

Period of change

This is a period of change for the aviation industry, as it moves from the old ways of federated systems and proprietary technology into a new age where more familiar, off-the-shelf components are taking to the skies. Get on board, fasten your seatbelt and enjoy the flight.

It was inevitable that the continual evolution of computer technology would eventually affect air travel, but the avionics industry has always been isolated from the fast-moving computing mainstream. Following the introduction of electronic systems in the early 1980s, the computing power in a commercial airliner or military aircraft would have resided in several discrete, dedicated electronic devices, communicating via point-to-point links or – in more recent times – a local network based on the ARINC 420 or ARINC 629 aviation standards.

The most important unit, the Flight Management System (FMS), communicated with various navigational sensors and sent instructions to the autopilot, while giving feedback to the flight crew through dedicated analogue instrument panels or more flexible electronic multifunctional displays.

These weren’t necessarily sophisticated; you’ll still find Airbus 320 or Boeing 777 jets in service today that rely on Intel 80286 or 80486 processors dating back to the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Over the past decade, however, avionics has been transformed. The pilot’s cockpit has been revolutionised by a shift from analogue instrument panels and physical controls to the so-called “glass cockpit”, where programmable multifunction displays provide navigational data and instrument feedback, while touchscreens, trackballs and keyboards control the various systems.

flight deck

Although text-based menus and simple keypads are still used for the Control Display Units that pilots use to program the FMS, they’ve been added to or supplanted by modern graphical displays and UIs. What’s more, while Boeing retains the classic flight yoke in its cockpits, Airbus long ago replaced it with a smaller “side-stick” similar to the flight sticks used in PC simulations, giving the flight crew more room to interact with the computers.

Yet this is nothing compared to what’s happening behind the scenes.

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