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At the sharp end: Innovative cockpit tech points the way

A new era of cockpits kitted out with the next generation of flight deck technologies that lighten pilot workload, increase safety, and reduce energy consumption is on the horizon. Two of Clean Sky's major efforts in this domain are the ongoing Extended Cockpit project, and the recently completed FIVER project.

Thales cockpit  - side view
Thales cockpit - side view

‘The objective of the Extended Cockpit project is to create an enhanced, integrated cockpit that can be assessed as a whole in different approaches – flight operations, crew interface and evaluation – which can be incorporated into future air transport schemes, in relation to new functionalities, safety of flight and certification, and to demonstrate these at TRL5,’ explains Paolo Trinchieri, Clean Sky project officer.

The project is supported by 10 complementary projects spanning a vast array of cockpit technologies and pilot/avionics interfaces for lightening the pilot's workload and reducing CO2 emissions, in line with the EU’s green ambitions and Clean Sky’s objectives. 

‘Specific technologies developed,’ continues Trinchieri, ‘include displays and human system interfaces such as “eyes out displays”, interactive multifunction displays, pilot behaviour monitoring, flight management enhanced functions plus advanced communications, navigation, and surveillance functions.’

All these elements are integrated into a cohesive cockpit demonstrator which is representative of the aircraft environment for evaluations at TRL3 with end user pilots. Complementary to that, a 'Virtual System Integration Bench' validates the overall architecture of the complete solution at TRL5, covering the cockpit concept, detailed flight crew interfaces, functions and performances.

‘We're talking about a laboratory demonstrator with PCs, screens and software, simulating the innovations for the next generation cockpit,’ says Trinchieri, pointing out that the project is taking an ‘evolutionary approach for the entire spectrum of commercial airliner types, covering business jets, regional to short-medium range to large, long range application.’

We're talking about a laboratory demonstrator with PCs, screens and software, simulating the innovations for the next generation cockpit

Thierry Maret, European R&T Project Coordinator, Thales, says that through this Extended Cockpit project ‘airlines will reduce fuel consumption and at the same time cut aviation's emissions – we assessed that for a flagship carrier or a major low cost airline, yearly savings will be around $16 million for fuel-costs and 100 000 tonnes for CO2 emissions.’

Maret adds that if Thales' assessment were to be applied to aircraft across the world’s fleets, introducing progressively this new generation of cockpits equipped with next generation flight management system and other tech developed in this project, ‘a cumulative reduction of 84 million tonnes of CO2 could be achieved by 2040.’

Lightening the load

One of the weight-saving aspects of the project is the use of multi-function touchscreens to replace mechanical buttons and controls found in today's cockpit overhead flight control units.

The next generation of cockpits have very large screens – the project has been using 18 inch screens with a wide viewing angle, high resolution and multi touch capability with built-in palm-rejection – the technology can distinguish between an intended finger gesture and an accidental contact of the rest of the hand, similar to the technology in consumer tablets. 

The Extended Cockpit also developed a brand new generation of high-resolution colour Head Worn Display (HWD) that can exhibit primary information directly in the pilot's line of sight, looking out of the cockpit. Another weight (and energy) saving initiative in the project is the development of avionics that can operate in ambient temperatures that don't require cooling systems.

You talking to me?

Yet another additional aspect of the project is the introduction of voice interaction in the cockpit, using vocal pilot commands such as 'touch' and 'talk'. 

‘You can touch a display and then talk, saying “flight level” or call out a frequency for the radio,’ says Maret. ‘There's also a “look and talk” function, so you look at a display, and it will be contextualised, and the system will understand that you are talking about either communications or radio management, and then you will state the frequency or radio you want to use.’ 

The system will understand that you are talking about either communications or radio management

There's also a vocal assistance facility introduced called ‘Solo’, a type of virtual co-pilot based on artificial intelligence, and the idea is to reduce crew workload by using the same vocal interactions as you would have with a human co-pilot. 

Someone to watch over me

In the age of cyber threats, security has also been provisioned for in the project. Maret points out that while the pilot-aid applications themselves are running in the electronic flight bag or on a tablet, the ‘interfaces have been secured to take care of cybersecurity issues.’

A first generation crew monitoring system was also developed to monitor not only crew fatigue and pilot vigilance, but also for detecting pilot incapacitation using a multi-sensor architecture based on a combination of a camera pointed at the pilot and a smartwatch with a vital signs sensor.

Mission possible

Maret says that the new generation of system management will be more mission-oriented, in contrast to today's legacy flight warning systems which are based on system information.

‘Progressively we are moving to a capacity-based concept when it comes to warnings. So it's not a question of “what's wrong,” the questions will be “what are the remaining aircraft capabilities to successfully complete the mission?” and “how is my mission impacted, and what are the mitigation actions?”, as well as “how do you suggest I update my mission to ensure the safety of the flight with a reduced level of capabilities on board?” – these are the direct safety enhancements.’

Further safety measures have been introduced through 'flight trajectory concepts.' The idea is to have a secure trajectory against terrain, weather, traffic, aircraft envelope – everything that can improve the safety of the flight, despite the weather conflicts and the traffic, and to avoid collisions with other aircraft and the ground. 

Results, and the path ahead

Thales reports that the project ‘achieved its main objectives in 2020, reaching TRL5’. 

Regarding the potential exploitation path, Maret says that due to the fact that many of the proposed new functions and solutions produced in the Extended Cockpit project are developed in the Open World and reside in the electronic flight bag or the tablet, they don't need a lot of time to be fully or further developed. 

Through the course of the project, Thales has registered over 80 patents ‘in all fields of activities including displays and voice control functions, so we're quite active in this domain,’ says Maret. 

To reach this point, Maret emphasises that throughout the project, the Clean Sky 2 JU mechanism has been instrumental in bringing all these different cockpit technologies and functionalities to the Extended Cockpit.

‘This partnership is welcomed and very appreciated. Most of the time, the partners met our specifications, and they proposed good solutions to be integrated in our products, and the idea is to enter into a cooperation with them for exploitation as soon as possible.’