Thales grabbed headlines in late 2019 when it unveiled an “entirely connected” next-generation flight management system (FMS) that introduces open-world data to the cockpit, and can calculate alternative trajectories in real time to propose or react quickly to changes of plan.
The PureFlyt-branded FMS is billed as enabling pilots “to make better decisions using more sources of information” and bringing improved performance and reactivity to the aircraft during complex phases of flight. It accommodates the implementation of concepts such as 4D [latitude, longitude, altitude and time] trajectory management as contemplated by SESAR to enable significant improvements in airspace capacity, and can even factor in a fifth dimension – the calculation of aircraft weight – to enable fuel burn optimization in-flight.
Thales has designed PureFlyt with today’s two-pilot airline operations in mind. The FMS incorporates the use of connected pilot electronic flight bags (EFBs) which can exploit approved cockpit connectivity pipes such as Inmarsat’s new SwiftBroadband-Safety satcom service. When asked by a journalist at its media briefing in Paris whether the FMS would mean less head-down time for pilots, Thales VP, head of commercial avionics Peter Hitchcock said the system should enable more effectiveness during “the demanding phases” of flight – departure and approach.
One of the things that, if you talk to one of our [test] pilots, is the pilots will spend as much time as they can [head up] except when something unexpected interrupts [them]. And then the natural intent, and the danger is that you have two pilots, and both can be head down even though one should be managing and the other resolving. So, what you want is a system to be as proactive as possible so they can get back to head up.
And that’s one of the permanent trajectory benefits [of PureFlyt] – that you don’t need to think and then recompute and then wait for a new plan. The aircraft will say ‘this is what will happen to get back on route; this is how much energy, the fuel burn,’ you don’t have to think about that stuff. The FMS is doing it for you. So, it should allow them to feel much more confident and then get back to eyes out during critical phases.
Given that PureFlyt will be available for entry-into-service in 2024 for both aircraft linefits and retrofits, and is expected to fly well into the 2050s, will there be new message sets for pilots? “I’m sure there will,” said Hitchcock. “I’m convinced there will be new connectivity, new message sets, new standards, because as the ability to exchange data is there, people will be saying, ‘well I want to share it more globally, rather than just with my airline operations center, so how will I do that?’”
This is the type of ultra-connected and digitalized ecosystem that will be required if commercial aviation ever moves to a single-pilot or fully autonomous future.
But in the near-term, under the current paradigm, is Thales satisfied with what it’s seeing from Inmarsat’s L-band satellite-based SB-S cockpit connectivity service to power “entirely connected” flight?
“I think at the beginning it will be enough,” Hitchcock told Runway Girl Network. “But I suspect that the capabilities will resolve. And again, it comes also back down to updates. How often do people need to see the trajectory? And perhaps this is one area where if you want to project to more single-pilot operations, if and when that comes true, you can expect the volume of transmission data to increase dramatically to replace the dialogue between two people.”
Such a scenario would require new rules around what constitutes safety- and non-safety services. Major pilot union ALPA has warned that single-pilot operations will be less safe. But while it’s difficult to predict the future, Hitchcock said: “At some point, there will be further message sets and further rules. There’s a change in the ATM systems under SESAR [in the EU] and under NextGen [in the US]. So, these things are moving together slowly, but they are moving. The issue for us is not to try to solve all of those problems simultaneously. It’s to make sure we’ve got the aircraft [FMS development] moving at the speed that allows us to adapt to them when they are there.”
And as I said, I think the next jump in bandwidth will be when people are looking at trying to go down towards single pilot in some phase of the flight, not saying one pilot on the plane, but I’m saying at some phase of the flight and to replace the communication between the two of them. I presume there will be communication off board the aircraft and therefore the comms demand will be higher, but we’re not there to design that today.
Thales’ design principles will, however, help to future-proof PureFlyt, said Hitchcock. Rather than try to bake all the software in and update it infrequently, the company is able to make changes much more rapidly and regularly, he said. Its budget for development is in the “three-digit millions”.
“When you’re playing with this level of complexity and certification, it’s not an easy thing to do,” he added.
Importantly, Thales did not tie PureFlyt to a specific aircraft development program. It wanted to unveil the new FMS before the development of new aircraft, management said.
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