Navigating Complex Systems in Avionics

April 3, 2017

Flying a plane is more than just sitting in a cockpit. It involves multi-layered complex systems. Uncover the often unnoticed software keeping planes flying, as well as the activities - like testing and certification - needed to get this software on board.

avionics complex systems

Sitting in economy and travelling at 500 knots at an altitude of 40,000ft while browsing the inflight movie options, most passengers are blissfully unaware of the intricate, beautiful aerial ballet they are a part of.

Last year, over 200m international air passengers flew via the UK alone. Looking at mobile app ‘FlightTracker24’, anyone can see the staggering number of aircraft in our skies at any one time.

In less than twenty years, passenger numbers are due to grow to 7.2bn, so it's safe to say that making aircraft more efficient and improving on-ground safety and management systems is paramount.

Of course, it’s not just planes. Much of the global infrastructure in place today relies on similar safety and mission-critical systems. It’s amazing to think that an operator on Earth can precisely adjust the orbit of a spacecraft heading for Mars, and, closer to home, that software controls essential equipment in hospitals, like ventilators used to help a patient unable to breathe on their own.

Better systems not only contribute to the safety or reliability of operations, but the continual growth of our world. Unfortunately, for the civilian air travel market, things are already looking tough.

Current demand is a struggle to cope with. Things like terminal operations, baggage handling systems, security operations and the weather can have a massive and unpredictable effect on air traffic management. It takes a lot of work to keep air traffic moving safely.

Ensuring the separation of aircraft throughout all phases of flight – from rotation to cruise to the final flare and application of reverse thrust – is a significant undertaking. Without computers, we’d be in trouble. It takes millions of lines of highly complex, internationally-compliant software code for the air industry to operate, all of which must be written, verified, validated and certified to the highest levels of integrity.

Interestingly, in many cases, the most prevalent threat to accuracy is human error, as the software involved has been so rigorously tested against failure, it is more reliable.

Digital systems are close to infallible and are usually the safest option to employ. Guaranteeing infallibility requires considerable expertise and experience however. Thorough and high-quality testing of the software we use will ensure that, as our reliance on such systems grows, our world gets safer.

But we’re not just talking safety here, there’s also a lot of clever software that, in the case of planes, manages a host of other on-board systems too. Ones we’re more likely to take for granted.

While on-board, passengers are surrounded by software that controls almost everything they interact with. From the movies being watched, the announcements about duty-free shopping to the toilet flushing systems… It’s software that makes it possible!

Of course, the demands on software won’t end here. We’re ever-striving for stronger, faster systems to support the introduction of increasingly complex, highly efficient functionality, like better fuel management and carbon emission reductions, for example.

It’s no surprise that the aerospace environment is fast becoming one of the most complicated and closely managed sectors in the world. Designing and implementing the mostly invisible systems that support each hundred-ton aircraft hurtling through the air at impressive speed in overcrowded, narrowing air corridors, is a huge responsibility!

Every time a family steps on to an aircraft for their holiday, they are normally worrying about fitting their cabin luggage into the overhead locker, how to keep the kids occupied for hours and if they packed enough sun lotion. They are mostly unaware of the many systems ‘behind the scenes’ that are responsible for their safety. And that’s the way it ought to be.

Passengers don’t need to know that because of the high quality of our teams’ work, the environment management system works without a hitch. Equally, although Carmella, Joao and Ricardo worked tirelessly on the avionics of the plane they are on, it’s fine that Mr and Mrs Smith are thinking about their trip to Jamaica instead.

The beautiful thing about important software is that the less it’s noticed, the more exceptional it usually is. We’re happy to contribute our safety-critical systems expertise to keeping people safe in the air, whether they know it, or not.