777X: Advancing Avionics

While it might be defined as a derivative re-engined airliner, the Boeing 777X will bring innovative across-the-board avionics.

When the Boeing 777X enters commercial service in 2020, the aircraft will be equipped with the latest avionics and related systems. Some devices will be next-generation enhancements brought over from the 787, while others could be considered new technology. Both will advance the science of avionics and make air travel more cost effective and efficient for airlines, according to Boeing and first-tier vendors.

The 777X will introduce five large-format Rockwell Collins avionics displays with touch-screen technology — a first for a commercial airliner. The touch screens, part of Rockwell’s ProLine Fusion package, will lower pilot workload during ground and flight operations.

First launched on business and military aircraft, touch-screen technology was not embraced initially by commercial airlines, particularly pilots, who were concerned about redundancy and robustness of the touch-screen panels.

“Developing a more robust display is one of the areas in which Boeing wanted us to focus,” said Nic Jaeger, principal program manager of 777X at Rockwell Collins. “A lot of the design requirements went into the bezel (or frame).” The new bezel features are designed to provide bracing and added stability in turbulence. Pilots also can interact with the displays using rotary cursor controls.

Touch-screen technology for the 777X will have new multi-touch capability, where the pilot and co-pilot can use the touch screen simultaneously, “a big game changer from a functionality perspective,” said Jaeger.

Rockwell’s dual head-up displays will be an option on the 777X, as they are standard equipment on the 787.

Boeing and Rockwell are not that far along in the 777X program to talk about test results of avionics systems. Yet there are noteworthy developments.

“We have pieced together prototypes that are being tested at Boeing Integration labs,” said Jaeger. “ So far, so good on the performance of these touch-screen prototypes.”

Emirates’ aircraft will use the Thales AVANT in-flight entertainment system. Photo courtesy of Thales

Boeing has tested touch-screen technology on flight decks in simulators for several years. In 2014, the OEM used its ecoDemonstrator flight-test aircraft to give pilots real-time experience with touch technology in the forward displays.

Voice-activated avionics are not part of the 777X cockpit, though Rockwell and other avionics makers are testing the technology for civil use.

Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen is providing content for the front-panel electronic flight bag on the 777X, as it has done on existing 777 models. Tablet devices like the iPad are widely used in the airline industry as low-cost alternatives to front-panel installations. Mobile devices also can be refreshed more easily than can installed avionics hardware. Jeppesen said it “continues to be at the forefront of these applications.”

In addition, the 777X will host specific apps for flight operations. The data can be displayed and interacted on forward display units.

“We have also added new safety features like optimal runway exiting and brake-to-exit, which will allow a pilot to tie an airplane’s rollout and stopping distance to a specific runway exit,” said Kirk Scarbrough, Boeing’s 777X systems chief engineer.

A new ground camera maneuver system to help pilots during taxi operations will be on the 777X. The aircraft’s flight-control software uses the latest 787 technology to lower pilot training and improve handling during unusual conditions.

The 777X also will feature onboard crew wireless connectivity as well as terminal wireless and ground-based cellular connectivity. Emirates, which has ordered 150 777Xs, will use the Thales AVANT in-flight entertainment system. To support Emirates, Thales is establishing Discover Dubai, an IFE innovation and support facility.

“We continue to finalize the development and design and will announce additional features through the development phase of the 777X,” said Scarbrough.

GE Aviation will provide the Common Core System (CCS) and the Enhanced Airborne Flight Recorder (EAFR) for the 777X. The CCS, often referred to as the “central nervous system and brain” of the aircraft it hosts, is produced at GE’s facility in Grand Rapids, Michigan, along with the EAFR. Remote Data Concentrators (RDCs) are manufactured in Cheltenham, United Kingdom.

Touch-screen technology for the 777X will have new multi-touch capability.Photo courtesy of Rockwell Collins

Development of the CCS technology began in the late 1990s with the C-130 Hercules Avionics Modernization Program. The technology migrated to the U.S. Air Force’s Boeing KC-46A tanker transport and on to civil aircraft.

CCS has three major elements: processing for the applications software; the network, which connects everything together; and the RDCs, which reduce the wiring in the aircraft considerably through local connections to sensors and other digital gateways throughout the aircraft. Two cabinets store processors and 21 RDCs, along with the ten switches connecting everything together.

The CCS uses an ARINC 664 Ethernet-based data bus, but there are also some systems that use ARINC 629 data bus that was developed for the original 777. These A629 signals are converted to an A664 signal via a data bus converter.

Some of the same applications in the 787 will be installed on the 777X through the CCS. The technology is advancing in other areas, said GE Aviation’s senior sales leader, Mike Madden.

GE is updating the 787-era General Processing Module technology to boost performance. GE also is re-designing the RDC to make it more specific to the 777X.

The 777X retains much of the existing legacy systems from the 777. “So we invented a way to interface the old with the new,” said Madden.

Looking to the future, GE is looking at combining processors and RDCs into one LRU-like box, “which you could mount wherever you want,” said Madden. “This advancement would provide a bigger benefit to small business aircraft and helicopters, where space is limited.”

The enhanced EAFR is an example of technology transfered from the 787 to the 777X. The EAFR has a greater capacity than existing recorders and, according to GE, was the first to meet the new FAA flight-recorder regulation. The system has its own power supply.

The EAFR features network connectivity that enables reconfigurable flight-data acquisition and is capable of providing FAA-mandated recorder functions, such as digital flight-data recorder, cockpit voice recorder, data link and image recording in a single unit. GE’s EAFR is part of the Rockwell Collins network communications package.

Photo courtesy of Boeing

GE’s CCS and BAE Systems’ fly-by-wire flight control system are not integrated on the 777X primarily for safety reasons. “Although common core and certain critical systems communicate with each other, flight controls, engine controls and electrical systems have separate control architectures,” said Boeing. “This is also true for the 787 and the current 777.”

BAE Systems’ 30-year involvement with fly-by-wire technology includes a long relationship with Boeing on numerous flight control systems, said Andy Corea, director of air transport programs at BAE. This includes the spoiler control partial fly-by-wire system for the 737 MAX. Fly-by-wire systems were first developed for next-generation military fighter aircraft, which are inherently unstable.

The fly-by-wire system on the 777X is a significant advancement over earlier iterations. “We leveraged some common building blocks,” said Corea. “But this system will be our most advanced in terms of processing capability, packaging for reliability and advanced sensors.”

While the 777X fly-by-wire system has mechanically linked controls, BAE produces active control sidesticks for the Gulfstream G500/G600 business jets, which are also fly-by-wire platforms. This suggests that if fly-by-wire follows the typical military-to-business-to-civil aircraft avionics development pattern for related technology, active control fly-by-wire on airliners will one day become commonplace.

The 777X fly-by-wire will be the most maintenance-friendly and robust system ever built for commercial airliners, said Corea. The next-generation 777X widebody will have 12% lower fuel consumption and 10% lower operating costs than comparably sized airliners, said Boeing.

Part of the fuel savings on long-haul flights is due directly to the fly-by-wire and other avionics systems. The replacement of the heavier mechanical linkages system with lightweight electrical wires and electronic controls reduces fuel costs and offers airlines the possibility of increasing passenger payload. Reducing direct operating costs is a key concern of 777X customers Cathay Pacific, All Nippon Airways, Emirates, Lufthansa and Qatar Airways.

Unlike traditional avionics, which can serve multiple airliner types, fly-by-wire systems must be tailored to a specific aircraft. Fly-by-wire is not a plug-and-play item. That said, some sensor, computing and command functions of the 777X’s fly-by-wire could be used on other commercial airliners, said Corea.

Obtaining specific testing results on certain aircraft items is difficult and nearly impossible for an aircraft this far out from certification and delivery. However, Corea allowed, “this fly-by-wire system for the 777X is performing very well in development tests and is on track to meet the critical milestones Boeing has set.”

In 2013, Teledyne Controls won what it described as a “landmark contract” from Boeing to develop and supply next-generation aircraft data-acquisition systems for assorted commercial airliners, including the 777x.

At the core of the onboard network system is the Network File Server, which Teledyne Controls provides Boeing for the e-enabled 777X.

Data gathering is taking on more importance in the airline business, where reducing direct operating costs is king.

“What we are seeing now is OEMs trying to better utilize all of this data produced by the aircraft,” said Sam Mallos, OEM business development director for Teledyne Controls. “What is relatively new is the harvesting of data once it comes off the aircraft.”

As digital avionics became more complex, there became a corresponding need to collect, store and wirelessly transmit the data to a ground station. Before, this data was transmitted off the aircraft in snippets through the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system. More data can be transmitted off the newer aircraft as they become more e-enabled.

The certified Network File Server is the tie-in between the 737 Max and the 777X. An integral part of the contract, the data acquisition and information management solution includes two newly developed avionics units: the enhanced digital flight data acquisition unit and the Network File Server 2, designed to further improve flight safety, efficiency and maintenance. Mallos said that the technology would be enhanced and is a critical component of the 777X.

One major data-gathering challenge that needs to be resolved, said Mallos, is to determine who owns the data. “All OEMs will claim rights to access the data,” he said. “Airlines will say it is their airplane and their data.”

Pilot unions are also sensitive about dissemination of flight data because it can determine how the aircraft was flown.

One thing is certain. Next-generation commercial aircraft will have the ability to harness the power of this data and convert it into “actionable intelligence,” said Mallos.

Meanwhile, OEMs and their suppliers, like Teledyne, will consider how much data should be transmitted in real time and how much could be deferred until the aircraft lands.

Other suppliers on the 777X include Nabtesco Aerospace, which will provide the primary flight control actuation system. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, ShinMaywa Industries and Nippi’s aerospace division supply more than 20% of the 777X’s airframe.

Development of the 777X might follow the same path as other commercial aircraft programs. But the 777X will not only enhance avionics technology brought over from the 787 wide-body airliner, but also add new solutions, which could be applied to future airliners.

It is clear that advances in commercial airliner avionics are no longer considered “Page 2 news,” but sit alongside new developments in commercial airframes and engine design. True, the 777X will have an all-new composite wing (with a longer wingspan than the current wingspan on the 777) and two new highly advanced GE Aviation GE9X engines. The 777X also will have next-generation avionics with long shelf lives.

Q&A With Qatar Airways' CTO, Iain Lachlan

As launch customer for the 777X, did the airline work with Boeing on choice of avionics and other systems and the open architecture format?

Qatar Airways was involved in the design of the 777X from the early stages, providing inputs on which systems should be changed or aligned with the 787. A number of avionics changes are now included in the design on the baseline 777X. Going forward, Qatar Airways will continue to work with Boeing on further potential developments; however, once the design freeze is implemented, changes will be limited but our inputs will continue to be provided. In addition to aircraft design, we offered design ideas for other systems, particularly those affected by our specific environmental conditions.

Photo courtesy of Qatar Airways

Were there specific avionics Qatar wanted installed on its 777X?

Qatar Airways has played a part in ensuring systems like 787-type inertial reference systems, cockpit displays, common core system and cargo smoke detection system will be transitioned onto the 777X. Qatar Airways has been actively involved in the WTT and Trade study activities that Boeing is pursuing and has actively shaped the design of the airplane to the extent possible. This includes the installation of touch-screen cockpit displays and the Iridium SATCOM system.

Does the avionics package for the 777X advance the science of avionics for commercial airliners?

The avionics package is more of an evolution and integration of technologies available today on the 777 and 787 and not revolution as many may think is possible. It is designed to be more flexible with greater potential for enhancements in the future. The unique design aspects on the avionics front would be the touch-screen cockpit displays and the Boeing philosophy change where they now have a portable electronic flight bag solution as the baseline. The customer experience network is another new feature that has significant potential for future development.

What type of electronic flight bag technology can we expect to see on Qatar’s 777X?

The baseline offering from Boeing is a PED mount with wireless connectivity in the cockpit for a connected portable tablet EFB. The overall strategy for the EFB in the future is under study by Qatar Airways Flight Ops.

How will the avionics compare to other Qatar airliners of similar size?

The avionics suite will be an evolution from the current 777s and 787s. New capabilities with the touch-screen displays and customer experience network will be the biggest operational changes, while the CCS will be the biggest change on the avionics front. The fact that this is a “connected” aircraft will also enable more streamlined maintenance activities like remote fault diagnostics, sending software to the aircraft and getting data from the airplane. This will be new for the 777, but does exist today on the 787. However, IT security is high on the agenda of all manufacturers and operators to prevent unapproved access.

What about in-flight entertainment capabilities?

For competitive reasons, we are not able to share full details but the Qatar Airways 777X will be equipped with higher capacity media servers to support 4K UHD video and HD audio content, and also to provide passengers with a wider selection of entertainment options. A personalized and outstanding passenger experience shall be delivered through seamless integration of passenger mobile devices and also through seat-back connectivity for web-based applications. High-power USB charging and AC power outlets shall also be available cabin-wide. However, with recent changes in aircraft security, this is an area where a great deal of review and development will continue to be done. AVS

previousSynthetic Vision: A Must-Have for the Next Generation of Pilots?nextMaking the Most of a Connected Aircraft