MIAMI – Will the cockpit of tomorrow’s commercial aircraft be recognizable to the pilots of today? This question is becoming increasingly relevant as technology continues to advance rapidly.

It wasn’t too long ago that many within the aviation industry saw glass cockpits as a cutting-edge design pulled from the set of a science fiction movie. Today, they are the industry standard. 

What technologies will become the new industry standard in commercial aircraft cockpits? New concepts are pitched every year, but only a select few of these ideas have any groundwork in today’s science and engineering. These top cockpit technologies are at the forefront of innovation in the commercial aircraft industry. 

Photo: FAA

Hyper-Connected Glass Cockpits

The next generation of commercial aircraft cockpits will look most similar to the standard glass versions the industry is already used to. However, they will be far more intelligent, with multiple interconnected devices displaying large amounts of information at the flight crew’s fingertips. 

Intelligent Internet of Things (IoT)-connected sensors throughout the plane will feed real-time data to the cockpit and flight computer. Sensors like this are already in use in most commercial aircraft, forming the foundation of autopilot systems. They will soon be upgraded with IoT technology and may even be connected to an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered flight computer.

Touch screens are already on the rise and will soon be mainstream in glass cockpits, following in the success pilots have had integrating tablets and smartphones. A detailed FAA report on smart cockpits using this technology predicts it could reduce system and component failures as well as general aviation accidents. Pilots will be able to seamlessly transfer their flight plans from their smartphone to the aircraft’s computer. 

IoT sensors throughout the plane, along with the sheer number of devices available in the cockpit, will allow the crew easy access to more information than ever before. Automated systems in the flight computer will be able to pull up hyper-intelligent performance data and emergency operations checklists in seconds. Voice controls and virtual assistants may also be integrated one day.

Heart Aerospace’s Electric ES-19 electric aircraft, which is currently under development. Photo: Heart Aerospace

Electronic Ignition and Engine Control

Electronic engine control is already fairly mainstream today, although it is mainly still used in automotive vehicles and not aircraft. It is only a matter of time before it’s integrated into commercial aviation, especially as the industry gets closer to having fully electric commercial planes. 

Electric aircraft are at the precipice of innovation in the commercial aircraft industry. The first-ever electric commercial flight occurred in late 2019, but long-distance aircraft still face the challenge of batteries. Engineers must find a way to create a high-power, lightweight battery to make fully electric commercial planes a reality. This will impact cockpit advancements to some extent since a craft like this will have different flight systems and an alternate power supply. 

When fully electric commercial aircraft finally come to market, possibly in the next decade, electronic ignition and engine control systems will be an intuitive element in the cockpit. Even in fuel-powered and hybrid aircraft, EEC systems are an exciting upgrade to the standard glass cockpit’s features and controls.

This technology powers up the engine with the push of a button. Digital engine control systems will soon become mainstream in commercial aircraft cockpits, replacing less efficient analog controls with more reliable, user-friendly digital systems. 

While EEC technology still has some key obstacles to overcome, it is a foundational component of next-generation cockpit technology for commercial aircraft.

Photo: Kochan Kleps/Airways

Automated Flight Control

Autopilot technology has come a long way over the past century since it was first introduced. As the aerospace industry moves into the future, cockpits will become home to the most advanced autonomous flight control systems yet. 

Many industry experts have speculated that fully autonomous commercial aircraft will become a reality. The truth is that it will likely take significantly longer than self-driving car technology, which itself isn’t mainstream yet. This is due to the sheer amount of data needed to train an AI flight system, as well as the intense amount of testing required.

Artificial intelligence development will need to advance considerably more before these planes become reliable and commonplace. 

In the meantime, automated flight control systems will function in an assistance-type position, helping pilots control aircraft. This could take the form of quick, autonomously compiled emergency response checklists. Similarly, advanced POI and MOI sensors connected to these intelligent flight systems will help stabilize acceleration, symmetry, and balance in flight. 

Intelligent AI flight control systems could also take control of the aircraft in an emergency, such as the pilot becoming incapacitated or their view obstructed. 

Photo: magic-holo

AR and the Holographic HUD

One of the most exciting technologies revolutionizing commercial aircraft cockpits is augmented reality (AR) and holographic HUDs. HUD technology has mostly remained exclusive to military aircraft, but commercial aircraft designers are also beginning to implement it. 

Two main HUD methods are in development for commercial aircraft: AR and holograms. Augmented reality superimposes digital objects onto the real world, typically through a smartphone display or AR glasses. Some scientists consider AR a type of hologram itself. However, holograms as people generally think of them are a different kind of technology, using beams of light and photographic plates to display images. 

Various forms of technology have been tested in attempts to create a holographic HUD, such as a research study that generated a 3D windshield using special glasses and image projection. 

Integrating some form of advanced HUD in commercial aircraft could be the first step toward the successor of the glass cockpit. Key data readouts would be moved from glass cockpit monitors to the holographic HUD as part of the pilot’s main field of view. They would no longer need to look away from the windshield to see important data. 

As engineers and designers work to further streamline the commercial aircraft cockpit, some form of HUD will almost certainly become a reality. The technology’s main challenge is working out how to project images onto a windshield the size of those on commercial aircraft. 

Image: Thales Avionics Group

The Cockpit of Tomorrow

The aerospace industry has always represented the future, where people can take to the skies aboard cutting-edge aircraft. Pilots and flight crews get the first taste of these new technologies, key among them innovations in cockpit tech. 

In the years and decades ahead, the cockpit will step into a new era, one beyond the bounds of screens and physical controls. Soon enough, the glass cockpit could become holographic, fully integrated with AI flight controls, intelligent data displays, and advanced IoT sensors keeping everything on course in the skies.

Featured image: JetBlue A220 Cockpit. Photo: Kochan Kleps/Airways