Avionics are the electronic systems used on aircraft, artificial satellites, and spacecraft. Avionic systems include communications, navigation, the display and management of multiple systems, and the hundreds of systems that are fitted to aircraft to perform individual functions. These can be as simple as a searchlight for a police helicopter or as complicated as the tactical system for an airborne early warning platform. The term avionics is a portmanteau of the words aviation and electronics.
The term "avionics" was coined by the journalist Philip J. Klass as a portmanteau of "aviation electronics". Many modern avionics have their origins in World War II wartime developments. For example, autopilot systems that are prolific today were started to help bomber planes fly steadily enough to hit precision targets from high altitudes. Famously, radar was developed in the UK, Germany, and the United States during the same period. Modern avionics is a substantial portion of military aircraft spending. Aircraft like the F‑15E and the now retired F‑14 have roughly 20 percent of their budget spent on avionics. Most modern helicopters now have budget splits of 60/40 in favour of avionics.
The civilian market has also seen a growth in cost of avionics. Flight control systems (fly-by-wire) and new navigation needs brought on by tighter airspaces, have pushed up development costs. The major change has been the recent boom in consumer flying. As more people begin to use planes as their primary method of transportation, more elaborate methods of controlling aircraft safely in these high restrictive airspaces have been invented.
Avionics plays a heavy role in modernization initiatives like the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Next Generation Air Transportation System project in the United States and the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) initiative in Europe. The Joint Planning and Development Office put forth a roadmap for avionics in six areas:
The cockpit of an aircraft is a typical location for avionic equipment, including control, monitoring, communication, navigation, weather, and anti-collision systems. The majority of aircraft power their avionics using 14- or 28‑volt DC electrical systems; however, larger, more sophisticated aircraft (such as airliners or military combat aircraft) have AC systems operating at 400 Hz, 115 volts AC. There are several major vendors of flight avionics, including Panasonic Avionics Corporation, Honeywell (which now owns Bendix/King), Rockwell Collins, Thales Group, GE Aviation Systems, Garmin, Raytheon, Parker Hannifin, UTC Aerospace Systems and Avidyne Corporation.
One source of international standards for avionics equipment are prepared by the Airlines Electronic Engineering Committee (AEEC) and published by ARINC.
Communications connect the flight deck to the ground and the flight deck to the passengers. On‑board communications are provided by public-address systems and aircraft intercoms.
The VHF aviation communication system works on the airband of 118.000 MHz to 136.975 MHz. Each channel is spaced from the adjacent ones by 8.33 kHz in Europe, 25 kHz elsewhere. VHF is also used for line of sight communication such as aircraft-to-aircraft and aircraft-to-ATC. Amplitude modulation (AM) is used, and the conversation is performed in simplex mode. Aircraft communication can also take place using HF (especially for trans-oceanic flights) or satellite communication.
Navigation is the determination of position and direction on or above the surface of the Earth. Avionics can use satellite-based systems (such as GPS and WAAS), ground-based systems (such as VOR or LORAN), or any combination thereof. Navigation systems calculate the position automatically and display it to the flight crew on moving map displays. Older avionics required a pilot or navigator to plot the intersection of signals on a paper map to determine an aircraft's location; modern systems calculate the position automatically and display it to the flight crew on moving map displays.
The first hints of glass cockpits emerged in the 1970s when flight-worthy cathode ray tube (CRT) screens began to replace electromechanical displays, gauges and instruments. A "glass" cockpit refers to the use of computer monitors instead of gauges and other analog displays. Aircraft were getting progressively more displays, dials and information dashboards that eventually competed for space and pilot attention. In the 1970s, the average aircraft had more than 100 cockpit instruments and controls.
Glass cockpits started to come into being with the Gulfstream G‑IV private jet in 1985. One of the key challenges in glass cockpits is to balance how much control is automated and how much the pilot should do manually. Generally they try to automate flight operations while keeping the pilot constantly informed.
Aircraft have means of automatically controlling flight. Autopilot was first invented by Lawrence Sperry during World War I to fly bomber planes steady enough to hit accurate targets from 25,000 feet. When it was first adopted by the U.S. military, a Honeywell engineer sat in the back seat with bolt cutters to disconnect the autopilot in case of emergency. Nowadays most commercial planes are equipped with aircraft flight control systems in order to reduce pilot error and workload at landing or takeoff.
The first simple commercial auto-pilots were used to control heading and altitude and had limited authority on things like thrust and flight control surfaces. In helicopters, auto-stabilization was used in a similar way. The first systems were electromechanical. The advent of fly by wire and electro-actuated flight surfaces (rather than the traditional hydraulic) has increased safety. As with displays and instruments, critical devices that were electro-mechanical had a finite life. With safety critical systems, the software is very strictly tested.
To supplement air traffic control, most large transport aircraft and many smaller ones use a traffic alert and collision avoidance system (TCAS), which can detect the location of nearby aircraft, and provide instructions for avoiding a midair collision. Smaller aircraft may use simpler traffic alerting systems such as TPAS, which are passive (they do not actively interrogate the transponders of other aircraft) and do not provide advisories for conflict resolution.
To help avoid controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), aircraft use systems such as ground-proximity warning systems (GPWS), which use radar altimeters as a key element. One of the major weaknesses of GPWS is the lack of "look-ahead" information, because it only provides altitude above terrain "look-down". In order to overcome this weakness, modern aircraft use a terrain awareness warning system (TAWS).
Commercial aircraft cockpit data recorders, commonly known as a "black box", store flight information and audio from the cockpit. They are often recovered from a plane after a crash to determine control settings and other parameters during the incident.
Weather systems such as weather radar (typically Arinc 708 on commercial aircraft) and lightning detectors are important for aircraft flying at night or in instrument meteorological conditions, where it is not possible for pilots to see the weather ahead. Heavy precipitation (as sensed by radar) or severe turbulence (as sensed by lightning activity) are both indications of strong convective activity and severe turbulence, and weather systems allow pilots to deviate around these areas.
Lightning detectors like the Stormscope or Strikefinder have become inexpensive enough that they are practical for light aircraft. In addition to radar and lightning detection, observations and extended radar pictures (such as NEXRAD) are now available through satellite data connections, allowing pilots to see weather conditions far beyond the range of their own in-flight systems. Modern displays allow weather information to be integrated with moving maps, terrain, and traffic onto a single screen, greatly simplifying navigation.
Modern weather systems also include wind shear and turbulence detection and terrain and traffic warning systems. In‑plane weather avionics are especially popular in Africa, India, and other countries where air-travel is a growing market, but ground support is not as well developed.
There has been a progression towards centralized control of the multiple complex systems fitted to aircraft, including engine monitoring and management. Health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS) are integrated with aircraft management computers to give maintainers early warnings of parts that will need replacement.
The integrated modular avionics concept proposes an integrated architecture with application software portable across an assembly of common hardware modules. It has been used in fourth generation jet fighters and the latest generation of airliners.
Military aircraft have been designed either to deliver a weapon or to be the eyes and ears of other weapon systems. The vast array of sensors available to the military is used for whatever tactical means required. As with aircraft management, the bigger sensor platforms (like the E‑3D, JSTARS, ASTOR, Nimrod MRA4, Merlin HM Mk 1) have mission-management computers.
Police and EMS aircraft also carry sophisticated tactical sensors.
While aircraft communications provide the backbone for safe flight, the tactical systems are designed to withstand the rigors of the battle field. UHF, VHF Tactical (30–88 MHz) and SatCom systems combined with ECCM methods, and cryptography secure the communications. Data links such as Link 11, 16, 22 and BOWMAN, JTRS and even TETRA provide the means of transmitting data (such as images, targeting information etc.).
Airborne radar was one of the first tactical sensors. The benefit of altitude providing range has meant a significant focus on airborne radar technologies. Radars include airborne early warning (AEW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and even weather radar (Arinc 708) and ground tracking/proximity radar.
The military uses radar in fast jets to help pilots fly at low levels. While the civil market has had weather radar for a while, there are strict rules about using it to navigate the aircraft.
Dipping sonar fitted to a range of military helicopters allows the helicopter to protect shipping assets from submarines or surface threats. Maritime support aircraft can drop active and passive sonar devices (sonobuoys) and these are also used to determine the location of hostile submarines.
Electro-optic systems include devices such as the head-up display (HUD), forward looking infrared (FLIR), infra-red search and track and other passive infrared devices (Passive infrared sensor). These are all used to provide imagery and information to the flight crew. This imagery is used for everything from search and rescue to navigational aids and target acquisition.
Electronic support measures and defensive aids are used extensively to gather information about threats or possible threats. They can be used to launch devices (in some cases automatically) to counter direct threats against the aircraft. They are also used to determine the state of a threat and identify it.
The avionics systems in military, commercial and advanced models of civilian aircraft are interconnected using an avionics databus. Common avionics databus protocols, with their primary application, include:
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