The A380 shows off Airbus’ clever new kit

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This group has just disembarked after a 27 May A380 flight from Airbus’ Toulouse base.

The flight was mounted to demonstrate two really clever and seriously useful avionic advances that Airbus is just about to see certificated. One will make airborne collision a little less likely, the other will prevent runway overruns. Overruns are the most common type of aircraft accident, and one of the most expensive.

The team in the picture (above) consists of some technical journalists – including me (on the far left) - and numerous Airbus engineers and test pilots all of whom have played their part in bringing these development programmes to fruition.

The skipper on this flight – he’s the 6th person from the left wearing the blue tie - was experimental test pilot Claude Lelaie.

 

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Lelaie

 During the flight we carried out a number of full-stop landings to demonstrate the aircraft’s brake-to-vacate (BTV) system, but also to show off an amazing extrapolation of the BTV’s inherent capabilities which - for me - was the day’s showstopper: it was ROW/ROP – the runway overrun warning and protection system.

And, finally, we witnessed  – in action – a new way of making TCAS resolution advisories (RA) more manageable for pilots. More of that later. 

BTV allows the pilot to pre-set the runway exit at which he wishes to turn off, so the aircraft’s braking system arranges smooth reduction of runway speed down to 10kt with 50m to go to the exit – unless the pilot wants to intervene because it’s a fast-exit taxiway and he doesn’t need to exit that slowly. 

This may sound a like the ultimate in unnecessary optional extras, but it would be incredibly useful, especially in poor visibility, for minimising runway occupancy time.

How does the aircraft’s braking system know where the exit is? GPS, of course.

Now, imagine you’re flying your A380 and you are on short final approach to runway 32L at Toulouse. I’m sitting in the back watching your performance on these two displays (below) on a rack of monitor instruments. At the moment you’re doing nicely:

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The right image shows split shots from two video cameras, one beneath the belly and another on the fin. In the former, the nose-gear is obscuring the runway threshold.

The left image, absolutely contemporaneous with the video, shows the aircraft’s position relative to the runway (the magenta aircraft symbol). Sorry I didn’t get a video of this because if I had you would be seeing the two images – the real world and the runway plan - moving in synch. 

Here’s a picture of the same scene taken from the flight deck, but from a little further out:

 

 

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…and here’s me (below, left) keeping an eye on you from the back (I can see all the flight deck activity – you’re on video):

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Now let’s have a look at ROW/ROP and what it will do for you. Here’s the control that will enable you to tell the aircraft what you want the brakes to do:

 

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If you want BTV, you select it. If you just want a normal landing you select the braking action you want.

Now here’s a picture that will enable us to identify the essential offerings available:

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Just before your top of descent briefing you’ve called up this image on your navigation display so you can choose the landing you want at Toulouse. You’ve toggled the cursor (magenta chevrons) onto the threshold of runway 14L and clicked. That has designated the runway, and up comes the magenta crossbar that tells you where your landing roll would come to a full stop if the runway was dry, and a second – further on – if it was wet. That’s ROW/ROP working for you. If the runway was too short the crossbars would be in the overrun.

If you had selected BTV for the brakes, you would get the same display, but having designated the runway, you would have then to move the cursor over the image of the exit you want, and click to designate that.

Smart, eh? But it’s also easy to use.

The Southwest pilots who overran at Midway on a snowy night would have given a lot for something like this.

But it gets better.

When ROW/ROP gives you those stopping point designators for your top of descent briefing, it assumes you will fly a standard profile at standard reference speeds, crossing the threshold at 50ft and putting the beast down in the touchdown zone. But it still works if you don’t do any of those.

If you are high and fast on approach, ROW/ROP knows, and the stopping point designators move away from you down the runway. If you then carry out an extended flare as well, they may move beyond the runway end and, if they do, you will get two warnings: one scripted on the primary flight display saying “runway too short”, and a recorded voice saying the same words.

What I tell you now is not strictly relevant, but I was struck by it just the same: the voice that tells you “Runway too short” (or alternatively “If wet, runway too short), is highly compelling because it’s different: it’s not one of those dead-pan, mid-tone, American-accented voices. It’s a male voice, but pitched-up, and with an exquisitely English English accent. Your invisible guardian sounds as if he is looking over your shoulder and is genuinely worried about what he sees.

It would make anyone go-around.

But if you elect not to go around, when you touch down the system gives you absolutely maximum braking for the conditions.

Anyway, ROW/ROP is fantastic, and the same capabilities and logic that generated it could be used to create a take-off performance monitoring system, something lots of people have tried to do before and failed. My guess is that Airbus will go there, but they are certainly not admitting it.

Now let’s look at the TCAS (traffic alert and collision avoidance system) improvements. Project leader for the programme, Paule Botargues (below), is explaining the system to us before the flight:

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Botargues

Botargues and her team haven’t tampered with TCAS itself, they have just integrated TCAS with the autopilot and the flight director. It’s easy for me to say, blithely, that the team had merely to integrate these functions, but the task is actually very complex because it entails so many systems, inputs and so much software.

Remember that, at present, if the crew receives a TCAS RA, they disconnect the autopilot and fly the vertical RA trajectory manually.

Now the result of Airbus’ work is that, if the autopilot is engaged when an RA is generated, unless the pilot disengages it the autopilot will fly the RA trajectory precisely as demanded. If the pilot is flying manually at the time, he does not have to transfer his attention to the TCAS RA indicator and fly according to that, he just follows the flight director in the normal way and thus performs a perfect RA trajectory.

To test and demonstrate the system, the  the team has rigged up a system that generates virtual conflicting traffic on the TCAS display, causing it to provide the usual sequence of visual traffic proximity awareness, followed by a traffic advisory and finally a resolution advisory. This picture I took in flight is not very good, but on the nav display you can see the yellow aircraft symbol (our A380) and the red “conflicting aircraft” just ahead of it that has generated a “climb” RA. 

 

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Studies show that pilot reaction to RA is frequently slow, but when the action finally comes it is almost always an over-reaction, occasionally dramatically so, resulting in altitude deviations that are hazardous in their own right.

The TCAS RA indicator (see on the right of the image below) is not easy to fly accurately, especially when the pilot is psychologically aware that failure to follow it may result in a terminal collision:

 

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So this new system, which Airbus calls AP/FD TCAS mode, makes sublime sense.

Just before I sign off I’ll share a little anecdote about this demo flight.

One of the technical journalists that had come along to test-fly the new systems was a recently retired Delta Air Lines Boeing 777 pilot called Earl Arrowood who had never flown a fly-by-wire Airbus of any kind in his 30,000h career. And like the three other journalist/pilots there that day who were taking turns in the left hand seat, this hoary old Georgian aviator was given no simulator time to prepare for the experience, but blithely carried out several approaches, full-stop landings and take-offs.

You want to know what he thought about flying this giant, sidestick-controlled Airbus after a lifetime of McDonnell Douglas and Boeing? I asked him afterwards – although I didn’t really need to because he was so enthusiastic about it. He told me he loved it, and it took him “less than a minute” for him to forget he was flying a sidestick.

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10 Responses to The A380 shows off Airbus’ clever new kit

  1. Eric Wastiau 9 June, 2009 at 7:22 pm #

    A very interesting article. Iwish they were all the same kind in Flight Intl.
    As an airline pilot, I fully understand and appreciate the impact of the information provided. Thank you. Continue like this.

  2. Paul Miller, Better Safe Aviation 12 June, 2009 at 9:50 pm #

    A better and more universal technical innovation would be the adaption of crowned and grooved by ICAO as the world wide standard for runway engineering.

    Even the AB380 will experience hydroplaning on a non grooved runway when traveling at nine times the square root of the tire pressure on a wet runway with ponding and pooling.

    Didn’t the tremendous loss at Toronto Pearson Airport with an AF AB340 teach us anything?

    Transport Canada and the Greater Toronto Airport Authority had not adopted the 1973 FAA Runway Engineering Runway Grooving Standards.
    As a result, in my opinion, the AF AB340 hydroplaned off of the runway in Toronto, despite the best efforts of the crew, albeit having landed long and with a tail wind and with a flooded runway.
    My guess is that they were used to the crowned and grooved runways at CDG and supposed that the AB 340 would stop, just as it had many times before for them at home base. [They probably didn't associate the better wet runway performance with the crowning and grooving, but rather associated it with the AB 340 braking system.]
    Transport Canada and AMB did not cite the lack of state of the art, off the shelf, runway engineering for the hydroplaning event. As such, Transport Canada still has not changed their safety policy.

    The AB 380 will do the same thing. My guess is that most AF pilots, nay, most pilots associate good wet runway braking to their plane and not to the runway.

    If we were to see a world wide move to crown and groove all commercial runways, we would see a major reduction the world wide mishap rate related to hydroplaning mishaps. By gosh we could drive the mishap rate to zero or towards zero is by eliminating this flight safety hazards, one airport at a time. [Many hydroplaning mishaps actually involve runway excursions off of the side rather than the end.]

    Right now, Non-Grooved and Non Crowned runways pose a very severe safety hazard world wide. As you noted David, this is one of the most common mishaps world wide.

    But why? The technology was developed in the early 1970′s in the US to respond to this hazard.

    Why have major aviation safety organizations, such as ICAO, Transport Canada and others all around the world not adopted them?

    AB is definitely technically capable and I salute them for this good braking system idea. I use auto brakes about 95% of the time when I land the B767 and B757.

    But AB and AF have already suffered a serious tragedy in Toronto, why not learn from that tragedy?

  3. Alan Pereira-Pierce 19 June, 2009 at 2:04 pm #

    I agree with Mr Wastiau’s comment above, a very interesting article, it shows the real results of a technical challenge set quite a few years ago now.

    I see initial references to French female engineers has been removed. Shame, since it is true. Looking it from an engineers side, why do well-dressed pretty women (and men if you like?) have to be found working only in HR, marketing and sales departments?

  4. Bryan 15 August, 2009 at 9:03 pm #

    Shows how much the second person knows when he can’t even state the plane’s name correctly, its A340/A380 not AB340, just like it isn’t BI777

  5. Christopher King 15 October, 2009 at 12:17 am #

    I am a retired private pilot (instrument and commercially rated) who has just discovered your web site. Very interesting discussion of the landing system on the A380 Airbus! I shall visit the site before I go on a commercial flight again and look forward to implementation of GPS and other 21st century improvements.

  6. Ahmad Dan-Hamidu 26 October, 2009 at 2:52 pm #

    This is absolutely a ground-breaking, encouraging and exhilarating development. Kudos to Airbus R&D, you guys really know your stuff. What amazes me even more is how they did it:
    They added it to existing systems, rather than reinvent or introduce something entirely new.
    This means, older Airbus models can benefit from it. I wonder why Boeing didn’t think of this…but then what does one expect…wasn’t it Airbus who invented fly-by-wire, and then FADEC? Next thing you’ll know, Airbus will “add” some artisitic, user-friendly GUI to their PFDs, NDs/HSIs, ECAMs, etc.

  7. Frank 28 October, 2009 at 8:03 am #

    Great innovation; what happens if you get a runway change at a late stage in the approach, without having time to adjust the system to the new conditions? Is the BTV then cancelled and pilot made aware?

    Good article

  8. David Learmount 28 October, 2009 at 9:38 am #

    Designating a different runway would not be difficult, and it’s very quick to do. Just call up the digital airfield chart again, click on the new runway threshold and click on the exit you want to use. Same procedure as the first time. Remember I’ve seen the demo, but I’m not type-rated on the A380 or the ROW/ROP, so I don’t know whether, on a runway change, you would have to de-designate your first choice before re-designating the new one. Let’s see if the Airbus cognoscenti pick this one up!

  9. Frank 28 October, 2009 at 10:30 am #

    Hi David,

    Also (having the recent DL taxiway landing in mind), would the system give an alert when trying to land on a taxiway or wrong runway inadvertently. Having the GPS in the loop would make it hard for me to believe the system will not speak up when you are (about to be) touching down some place you should not be. Thinking of it, I can’t believe more rudimentary alert systems (comparing GPS position/course during final to the extended runway centerline for example) have not been in place for longer.

    Back on subject; I imagine you could run into serious issues landing on a shorter runway than ROW/ROP thinks, while the pilot leans back in the comfort of (mistakenly) thinking the ROW/ROP will prevent an overrun. Along the same lines, how does the system deal with, say, displaced runway thresholds? Or would such SOP’s be written such that use of the system is not allowed in those circumstances? (I know you may not be in the know on A380 SOP’s t airlines who will use the system)

  10. Alexa Seryak 11 October, 2011 at 8:41 am #

    Seems like we have some fellow commenters with some brains, thanks for the write up and positive comments from your readers. Alexa Seryak oh PS The A380 shows off Airbus’ clever new kit – Learmount good read :)