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PARIS: Thales plots future of cockpit avionics

Thales has arrived at Le Bourget with its latest vision of the future for avionics. It calls the concept Avionics 2020, because that is when it expects avionics based on this streamlined touch-screen interface to become standard.

Thales Avionics executive vice-president Michel Matthieu is bullish about the company's prospects because, as he points out, there is a healthy backlog of aircraft orders for many years into the future. The continued expansion of the aviation industry means smart avionics are going to be essential if traffic growth in tomorrow's busier skies is going to be both possible and safe, he says.

Avionics 2020 was born out of the ODICIS concept that Thales launched at the Paris air show in 2011 with partners Diehl Avionics, Alenia Aeronautica, Alitalia and Optinvent, along with input from European universities and small companies. ODICIS (one display for a cockpit interactive solution) principles "will be on commercial aircraft in the next 20 years", says Matthieu.

Regarding the Avionics 2020 cockpit, he says: "Thales is demonstrating to the world technologies and concepts that are viable now, and which can be made flight-ready on commercial aircraft in the next seven years."

Avionics 2020 envisages a flightdeck interface based on the kind of intuitive interaction already used in tablets such as the Apple iPad and smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy. Thales describes it as "natural, direct, hands-on human-machine interfaces, designed to serve the pilot through the use of the latest head-up and head-down technologies".

The most striking thing about its appearance is the lack of mechanical switches, knobs and buttons. One of the advantages, Matthieu points out, is that the 2020 model is scalable, making it adaptable for airliners or helicopters. It can also include bi-chromal head-up displays (HUDs), enabling enhanced, collimated primary flight data to be displayed on a synthetic representation of the outside environment.

The Avionics 2020 human-machine interface can connect to core functions supplied by other companies, says Thales, and it can be customised to merge with the cockpit concept as defined by the customer. Customisation - or, as Thales calls it, personalisation - can be carried out by Thales or by any customer who wants greater autonomy in the development and management of changes to create their own avionics solution. A user-friendly cockpit, it incorporates multi-touchscreen capabilities, offering pilots an intuitive interaction solution providing a connection with all aircraft systems and functions.

Avionics 2020 is human-centric, designed, according to Thales, to enable pilots to capitalise on their strengths and help them manage their weaknesses. An example is reducing head-down time reprogramming the flight management system because of in-flight plan changes.

The company emphasises that it has worked closely for a number of years with researchers, scientific institutions and world-class experts in the field of human-machine interfaces to refine its understanding of this field of development. By merging data from the different avionics and non-avionics systems, the system can present information to the pilot in a transparent manner, making decisions instinctive and less reliant on cognitive analysis.

As Mathieu says, this is intended to "mimic the processes which the human brain goes through in order to make a decision, especially under stress".

Just as important for the future, says Thales, this cockpit "anticipates the future challenges to the air transport industry in its continuing efforts to maintain growth trends in air traffic, while at the same time reducing carbon emissions [and] noise pollution and easing congestion in the skies without compromising safety standards". This future-proofing is accomplished by integrating European SESAR and US NextGen air traffic management capabilities - these are already built into the cockpit so that the pilot can use the full range of new functions required by these programmes.

The capabilities built into the cockpit include managed 4-D arrival operations, which provides all the aircraft converging on a specific waypoint or final approach fix a time constraint, so the traffic is efficiently sequenced and delay is avoided. On the ground, D-Taxi (Digital-Taxi) functionalities will be included in the cockpit. This is a real-time uplink of the cleared taxi route sent via CPDLC (controller-pilot data link communications), and it provides a representation of the taxi path on the navigation display.

ASAS (airborne separation assistance systems) will also be incorporated in the 2020 system. ASAS spacing helps create a regular traffic flow by ensuring an aircraft adjusts its speed to maintain its spacing relative to another aircraft, enabling smooth traffic merging and making the controllers' job easier and more efficient.

Finally the Thales concept of ECO Take-Off will be available in Avionics 2020. ECO Take-Off is an optimised take-off and climb profile that optimises the trade-off between CO2 emissions and noise-reduction procedures.

Commenting on this "seminal moment" for the Thales civil aerospace business, Denis Bonnet, head of innovation for the cockpit competence centre, says: "In this exercise we took a leaf from the automotive industry. The ever popular 'concept car' exercise employed by successful auto makers is an invaluable process, which over the years has allowed them to find the innovations and new implementations that have given us the most successful car models ever made.

"By using this same thought process, we designed ODICIS to think of the far future, and used this exercise to give us the inspiration to come up with all the practical applications we are outlining in the 2020 cockpit here at the Paris air show."

He adds: "This is indeed a seminal moment for us and the industry. We are showing the world that a cockpit designed around more seamless interaction between the pilot and the electronics is no longer a purely intellectual concept, but a viable commercial application which, as more and more functionalities and tasks are added to a pilot's workload, will become essential for the future of air transport."

Also being shown by Thales at Le Bourget is the flightdeck suite for the Airbus Military A400M transport. Matthieu says its flight management system, which accommodates a huge range of mission requirements, is the most complex FMS ever developed.

And for those who cannot wait for Avionics 2020, Thales is displaying its TopFlight avionics suite for all new Airbuses except the A350 and A380, which is retrofittable for those who want to upgrade their existing fleet.

Meanwhile, for smaller flightdecks in business and regional aircraft - and helicopters - there are tailored versions of its TopDeck suite. This is a T-shaped suite consisting of four interchangeable multi-function displays, with cursor control that can glide across them all. It is designed to enable paperless operation, and to integrate with additional functions such as an advanced head-up display and enhanced vision systems.

Meanwhile, Thales is fielding an impressive array of in-flight connectivity options for the cabin as commercial air transport moves into an era when passengers do not expect to lose connectivity when they fly.

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