Tomorrow’s connected cockpit is taking shape now

In the coming years, the FAA and equivalent authorities around the world must establish an air transportation network that can welcome futuristic aircraft and hitherto unseen flight volumes. The FAA’s NextGen air transportation network is a good start, but more is needed. Gregg Leone and Emily Stelzer of the MITRE Corp.’s Center for Advanced Aviation System Development in Virginia give us a glimpse of the future.


The future of aviation is upon us. Over the next decade, thousands of urban air mobility vehicles and package delivery drones will course through the low altitudes. Up higher, jet aircraft will re-bound from the pandemic to set records once again for passenger-kilometers traveled. Commercially operated rockets will roar toward space from new spaceports, and they will fly back in stages or in their entirety through this increasingly bustling airspace.

Accommodating these new airborne vehicles, their missions and the accompanying increase in number of vehicles will require vigorous and ongoing innovation by the FAA in its operation of the U.S. National Airspace System, as the United States fills its role in the global aviation ecosystem.

Today’s NAS must be adapted into a fully interconnected system from surface to space. This is the only way to safely maximize the throughput of passengers, packages and cargo. Staying organized will require aircraft and spacecraft, whether conventionally piloted or uncrewed, to exchange their intents, their trajectories and a host of other information with each other and with air traffic controllers in real time.

As the operator of FAA’s research and development center, we at the MITRE Corp. know that the information revolution occurring across the world offers unprecedented opportunities for making this level of data exchange possible. The required connectivity would be delivered through a mixture of publicly and privately owned infrastructure incorporating advances in satellite and cellular communication technology. We are researching ways to accelerate this transformational shift to a more fully interconnected NAS, a key being to develop a new class of fully integrated flight decks, or cockpits, for all passenger jets.

A foundation for success

The good news is that there is a strong foundation on which to build ubiquitous information exchanges. Today, air travelers are beginning to reap the benefits of that foundation, the Next Generation Air Transportation System, the ambitious modernization of the NAS launched two decades ago. NextGen brings multiple new capabilities, one being Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, ADS-B, a communications protocol in which a radio aboard each aircraft broadcasts the aircraft’s GPS position and other data to the ground and to any nearby aircraft equipped with an ADS-B In receiver. Due in part to ADS-B, controllers can now use traffic flow and scheduling software to adjust trajectories while aircraft are en route, a process called trajectory-based operations. There is also Data Comm, the text-based digital communications link between pilots and air traffic controllers. Data Comm has begun reducing the need for radio-based voice communications between pilots and controllers. In addition to reducing radio congestion, Data Comm enables controllers to deliver enhanced ATC services to pilots that are not feasible with voice communications.

These foundational capabilities have set the stage for the integrated flight deck of tomorrow, in which even more information will be exchanged over broadband satellite and 5G-based LTE networks to come.

Enabling a fully shared environment

By tapping into the power of these commercial communication infrastructures, we’ll be able to create a common operational “now-cast” of the NAS, one that encompasses shared weather, flight, traffic flow, aircraft intent and tracking information. This data would be shared in real time but also stored for researchers or investigators in the sector’s never-ending effort to improve safety. In real time, air traffic control organizations could use machine learning and artificial intelligence to generate actionable recommendations to realize new safety initiatives. Airlines will be able to analyze and monitor aircraft performance more fully to tailor operational solutions and reduce operational risks. The aircraft software would consume data to continually improve decision support through machine learning. Autonomous aircraft would rely on this situational awareness to safely operate in the airspace.

The use of shared infrastructure and services will also allow the NAS to evolve on pace with technology and the needs of the most demanding users or providers.

Evolving flight deck requirements

It all begins on the coming integrated flight deck.

As a foundation, MITRE is working with the FAA to explore new concepts for all airspace users that will improve route efficiency, reduce emissions, and provide a transportation system that is more resilient to interruptions caused by bad weather or other events. Time-based management tools will provide pilots with strategic target times for reaching certain points along their intended route. Trajectory-based decision support tools will enable controllers to provide crews with dynamically generated trajectory adjustments to meet a specific air traffic management goal for the flight.

Our research has shown that a connected flight deck could accelerate the realization of these types of operations. Shared and real-time access to mission support, weather and traffic data will enable pilots and controllers to execute these operations. Air-to-ground trajectory exchange will permit the ground automation software to produce trajectory adjustments in both time and spatial dimensions, adjustments that are not possible with legacy radar surveillance and voice communications. Real-time situational-awareness and safety analytics will guarantee the operations provide increased benefits while maintaining the highest possible safety.

Mobile technology on the flight deck

Airlines have already issued iPads or Microsoft Surface tablets to pilots, and we think they can make greater use of them in the future. Today, pilots exchange data with the airline dispatcher on tablets and receive information from the aircraft’s avionics. Some pilots access moving maps that show where they are on a taxi route using these tablets or other mobile devices. In the most state-of-the-art avionics, pilots can make changes to their flight plans and directly upload those changes to their flight management computer.

Since tablets and smartphones are now commonplace in the cockpit, at MITRE we are exploring how these compact, yet powerful machines might be used in other ways. For instance, we are examining how they can support air-ground trajectory exchange when that capability is not available in the aircraft’s avionics. We are also studying how mobile applications might enable improved departure-time planning for business jet operators, as well as how these portable devices might provide the information pilots need to engage in higher-precision aircraft spacing operations.

All of these explorations will ultimately yield a more integrated and effective aircraft operating environment that can better meet future needs. Mobile devices and technology may provide a key bridge between the flight deck and air traffic controllers in the future. These devices provide more computing power and storage than the aircraft’s avionics and could provide additional capabilities that are not available on installed avionics. Mobile devices can connect via Internet Protocol and cellular networks, and this could prove to be the most cost-effective conduit to bring the gigabytes of aircraft data to data-hungry smart systems being developed by airlines and air traffic service providers.

A shift to shared infrastructure

The potential of this sort of connectivity is boundless.

Today, most aviation communications occur within an aviation-specific communication infrastructure. Because this infrastructure serves a relatively small user base (tens of thousands), it is not keeping pace with state-of-the-art communication capabilities being exploited by other industries (that serve tens of millions). However, if aviation leveraged commercial broadband communications services, it would be possible to establish many more useful connections among airspace users, air traffic controllers, researchers and value-added service providers to vastly expand the amount and type of data that can be shared — all at lower cost.

By using the IP-based infrastructure the commercial sector provides, the aviation industry would reap the benefits of the continual upgrades of that infrastructure. And, because this commercial infrastructure boasts a vast customer base, these services can be provided at lower cost than those in a private, aviation-specific infrastructure.

Just as the Internet of Things has given us the ability to operate our garage doors or check our thermostats from the office or while traveling, it has the power to give pilots access to vast amounts and types of data, from multiple sources.

The integrated flight deck: tomorrow’s connected aircraft

Currently, global air traffic control organizations implement one-to-many command-and-control processes, in which pilots rely primarily on instructions from air traffic controllers to guide their operations. And even that process is segmented, with different facilities and controllers managing different regions of airspace.

Tomorrow, the pilot of a connected aircraft will connect with global information sources beyond a specific air traffic controller’s airspace in a many-to-many communication system. With greater connectivity, and more sharing of information, both air traffic control organizations and airspace users will build an enhanced flight trajectory — an end-to-end picture of the flight’s planned path in space and time — that can be shared with all stakeholders. This connected aircraft will be made possible at a global level following the International Civil Aviation Organization’s proposed Flight & Flow Information for a Collaborative Environment.

Access to other flight-specific information will be possible as well. For instance, pilots may be able to access information about airspace constraints, runway closures or even the upstream metering schedule for their arrival airport.

Even further, the flight deck’s connectivity will extend beyond FAA. Pilots might access feeds from NOAA for up-to-the-minute weather information. They may receive notifications that urban air mobility aircraft or low-altitude drones are flying nearby or that commercial space launch vehicles are transiting the airspace. Or perhaps they will receive an alert directly from a space vehicle making an emergency reentry into low-Earth orbit to clear the nearby airspace. With the enhanced situational awareness the integrated flight deck provides, flying will be safer and more efficient.

Connectivity from surface to space

The connected flight deck is just one example of the power of open data sharing that will enable the next leap in air transportation. Ultimately, FAA envisions that all aerospace aircraft, traffic management stakeholders and regulatory entities will be interconnected. As the operations of low-altitude drones, urban air mobility vehicles and commercial spacecraft expand, ubiquitous information exchange will become crucial to the safety and efficiency of the entire air transportation enterprise.

Tomorrow’s connected cockpit is taking shape now