Forecasts 2009 - Avionics: Smarter smart aids

By John Croft

Improvements in the way pilots receivedigital information in the cockpit are set to boost airline safety in the next few years by providing as-needed navigation data and real-time alerts of critical airport and airway status.

Enhancements under way include optimising electronic charts to aid pilots in processing navigation information as well as digitising and filtering the alerts generated by today's antiquated analogue Notam notice to airmen system, which attempts to inform pilots of issues like runway and taxiway closures, unlit towers near a runway or GPS navigation outages.

Data provider Jeppesen is leading the investigation of the human-factors advantages of smart filtering of charting information.


Rather than have all information presented all the time, such as on instrument approach charts, the company is working with airline customers to develop systems that willprovide a pilot with "what he needs to know when he needs to know it", says Mark Van Tine, chief executive of Jeppesen, a subsidiary of Boeing. For example, a pilot flying an instrument approach might only see the minimums data block when deciding whether to initiate the approach, leaving more room for pertinent data once the approach starts.

Obstacle threats are included at the bottom of a pilot

Van Tine says Jepessen is taking a phased approach, mimicking its paper charts in electronic products for now, but working in the laboratory to perfect the new processes that will make for "better, faster and easier" decision making. "Regulators are not ready for a true data-driven [environment] yet," he adds.

In parallel, Jepessen is also one of 10 companies involved in European and US trials of a new digital Notam system that will deliver more timely alerts directly to the cockpit. The system displays as-needed alerts in text or graphically on a pilot's electronic charts or airport diagrams. Combined with the growing number of moving-map airport displays with own-ship position, the digital Notam technology should help to reduce pilot errors on the ground, particularly at high-density airports, where the threat of runway incursions is magnified.


A near-miss at Manchester airport in the UK in 2003 highlighted some of the flaws with the current Notam process, which results in pages of coded messages that pilots typically print out and decipher before a flight.

According to the 2006 report on theincident by the UK's Air Accidents Investigation Branch, a Greece-bound Boeing 737 with seven crew and 190 passengers on take-off missed a runway cleaning crew's 4.3m (14ft) truck by 17m. Investigators found that the pilots did not become aware of the work crews until the aircraft approached rotation speed, despite having printed Notams and listening to a pre-recorded automatic terminalinformation service broadcast that declared as unusable the aft portion of the runway, where the cleaning crew was removing rubber deposits.

Moreover, the AAIB found that the same runway work had also forced threego-arounds the night before, with pilots on all three aircraft unaware of insufficient runway length (due to construction) until late in the approach.

Rather than being "out of sight, out of mind", the digital Notam will display hazard information - in this case, the unusable portion of a runway - as plain language text or in graphic format on the aircraft's electronic airport map (see diagram).


Ongoing tests of the xml-based system in Europe have included closure or limited use of an airport, runway or taxiway, activation of restricted airspace, opening or closing of oceanic tracks and temporary obstacles.

Operational implementation of the digital Notam system, which Eurocontrol says will increase safety by "enabling temporary and last-minute information to be rapidly accessible and usable by computers" and increase efficiency by "eliminating human interpretation and translation", will start in Europe and the USA in 2011.

© Reed Business Information 2009

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