Aircraft Instrument Panels are Changing: Here are the Detailsby John Persinos | April 8, 2018

MRO technician checking the avionics instruments
An MRO technician uses his Apple Tablet to check the avionics instruments that are embedded within the aircraft instrument panel.

Without an aircraft instrument panel, the pilot is flying blind. But without an MRO mechanic who understands these changes, the panel is useless.

The aircraft instrument panel, including the underlying avionics instruments, are undergoing a dramatic transformation. The trend is toward ultra-miniaturization, to make all aviation instruments as lightweight as possible.

These breakthrough technologies are changing the variety of aircraft instruments for sale, as well as the way these instruments are maintained, repaired and overhauled.

First, a quick breakdown of a basic airplane instrument panel, including all relevant avionics instruments:

Pitot Tube/Static Vent Instruments

The Pitot Static System uses what’s called a Pitot Tube to gauge the dynamic pressure caused by the forward motion of the airplane through the air. It also uses Static Vents to measure the outside static barometric pressure as the airplane gains or loses altitude. The three flight instruments connected to the Pitot Tube/Static Vent System include:

  • Altimeter: The altimeter shows the aircraft’s vertical height above mean sea level. This height is calibrated to account for outside air pressure.

  • Airspeed Indicator: The airspeed indicator shows the indicated airspeed in knots (or for super-fast jets, a Mach number).

  • Vertical Speed Indicator: Vertical speed is the rate of the aircraft’s ascent or descent. It’s typically shown in feet per minute.

Gyroscopic Instruments

A Gyroscope is a spinning wheel, rotating at a high speed. It’s typically powered by the Vacuum System Pump. Gyroscopic Inertia is the tendency of a rotating body to maintain its plane of rotation (called Rigidity in Space). Gyroscopic Precession is the tendency of a rotating body to consistently react to a force being applied by turning in the direction of its rotation exactly 90 degrees to its axis. Gyroscopic Instruments include:

  • Altitude Indicator: shows the orientation of the aircraft relative to earth’s horizon.

  • Heading Indicator: Akin to a magnetic compass, the heading indicator provides directional information to the pilot.

  • Turn Coordinator: The turn coordinator is basically two aircraft instrument panel components integrated into one device. One indicates the rate of turn; the other part indicates whether the aircraft is in coordinated flight, showing the slip of the turn.

The Ever-Smaller Aircraft Instrument Panel

Karla Hein, director of communications at AAR, says the aircraft instrument panel is getting ever-smaller, incorporating avionics instruments that are lighter and more powerful. AAR is the biggest MRO provider in North America, serving a global customer base.

The trends that AAR sees unfold are those that affect MRO outfits around the world. Despite its sheer size, AAR is an “early adopter” of technological change.

“The name of the game with aircraft instrument panels is ultra-small, ultra-fast microchips,” Hein says. “That means aircraft mechanics must be well-versed in the latest high-tech tools and techniques.”

Constant Aviation is a major provider of MRO services for the aviation industry, including avionics instruments, interiors, composites, and accessories. Dave Bowman, executive vice president of operations, says the airplane instrument panel is undergoing a major transformation. Avionics instruments are affected the most.

“Fast-moving change continues to upend the field of cockpit electronics, putting fierce pressure on avionics MROs to upgrade their equipment capabilities,” Bowman said. “Aircraft mechanics must maintain system interoperability with a bewildering array of new gadgets.”

Avionics Instruments: A Sea Change

Pilots must share real-time data with ground controllers and pilots. That much is a given. But now this paradigm must fit within the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) plan to modernize the National Airspace System (NAS). This plan is unfolding between now and 2025.

Officially called the Next Generation Air Transportation System (or NextGen), the FAA’s multi-billion-dollar NAS overhaul utilizes GPS technology similar to what’s now available in cars and on smartphones. NextGen is designed replace the existing and increasingly outdated radar-based national air traffic control system developed after World War II.

The NextGen initiative is ambitious. Via the NextGen blueprint, the FAA is creating an integrated grid of new technologies and procedures to enhance capacity and alleviate congestion. NextGen will improve safety, particularly in marginal weather, by minimizing diversions to alternate airports. But it will convey other benefits as well.

According to the Air Transport Association (ATA), NextGen will improve aircraft fuel efficiency. The ATA estimates that NextGen’s solutions, such as more efficient approaches to airports, will slash aircraft fuel burn by as much as 12%. The U.S. Environmental agency estimates that NextGen will reduce the air transport industry’s emissions by 10%-15%.

To make all of this happen, avionics is starting to incorporate the smallest microchips available, prompting aircraft mechanics to attend new courses in technology. “The notion of an aircraft mechanic as just a grease monkey is so outdated,” commented Charles Horning, head of the Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC).

Horning said the name of the game in aircraft instrument panels is integration, to save space and weight. The 787’s avionics instruments, for example, took six different dashboard boxes that existed on previous Boeing generation aircraft and integrated them into one cohesive module within the aircraft instrument panel. Avionics firms are upgrading the aircraft instrument panel to allow their airline customers to take better advantage of vast, high throughput satellite (HTS) capacity. These upgrades boost the data rates available to airplanes by at least 20 times. “To get an idea of what this upgrade means, it’s comparable to cellphone companies moving from 2G to 4G,” said Horning. Boeing has already announced its commitment to transitioning its standard aircraft instrument panel to the new upgraded, HTS network. New generation aircraft need a different mix of technology, both in terms of structures and avionics instruments. Training programs are being realigned to support those requirements; MRO schools are requiring more training in computer science. “These mechanics are learning how ultra-small microchips work,” said Hein. “The repair work is getting more specialized than ever.” The importance of keeping current with aircraft instrument panel technologies was emphasized by AFI KLM E&M Director Business Development and Sales Ian Bartholemew.

“MROs must be a step ahead of the game, be ready to adapt to changes and to have a well-structured training plans in place to allow technicians to be able to deal with the future aircraft,” Bartholemew said. “This means having to plan five to 10 years ahead to ensure that we are not caught out by the change in aircraft. We plan to develop simulation tools and explore other new learning and teaching techniques ensuring we are fully prepared for the next generation of aircraft and technicians have the technology to support them.”

Carbon Composites: Tough Enough

Another emerging trend is the shift toward an aircraft instrument panel made of carbon composite fiber. That makes these panels ultra-tough, protecting the delicate avionics instruments inside.

Composites are polymer materials reinforced with carbon fiber, forming a strengthened combination that’s light, flexible and durable. The next decade will see an explosion in the use of composite materials, in a variety of applications that include cars, trains, planes, satellites, boats, bicycles, housing materials, sporting goods, and wind energy.

The continual push for greater fuel efficiency is boosting demand for lightweight composites to replace metal parts in the aircraft instrument panel.

Boeing has bet the farm on its Dreamliner 787, a composite-built passenger aircraft. Composites offer dramatic performance benefits for aircraft, including reduced weight, improved fuel burn, and better resistance against corrosion and damage.

Composites reduce aircraft pollution through greater fuel economy, an important consideration in the wake of stricter emission controls imposed on aviation by European Union regulators. They also allow greater aircraft speed, opening up new competitive opportunities for hard-pressed airlines.

“As demand increases for these sophisticated materials, many MRO shops lack the engineering experience and skills to move away from metal-based repair and maintenance,” said Wolfgang Reinert, spokesperson for Lufthansa Technik. “Aircraft mechanics are quickly getting up to speed in handling an aircraft instrument panel that’s carbon strengthened.”