If you want evidence that the commercial airline sector is now bouncing back from what has been called the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, look no further than some announcements made during the second half of 2011.

In June, Airbus said it clinched deals with India’s IndiGo and Malaysia’s AirAsia for 180 and 200 A320s respectively. In the same month, Boeing said orders for its 737 family were at record levels, a claim bolstered in July by news that American Airlines had ordered 200 of its 737s along with 260 A320s. Later in the year, Boeing and Airbus forecast that the number of airliners with 100-plus seats will double to 30,000 by 2030.

"Papiomytis says both federated and IMA systems will offer significant opportunities for software upgrades."

That’s a lot of avionics systems and existing airliners will need them to meet the requirements of the NextGen and Single European Sky initiatives. As a result, system interoperability and integration will be key.

As Diogenis Papiomytis, principal aerospace consultant at market analysts Frost & Sullivan, said: "Aircraft deliveries are now on the up and new aircraft programmes, from the Boeing 787 to the Comac C919, are gaining momentum.

Parked aircraft are also returning from a period of inactivity, and need reconditioning. Implementation across the northern hemisphere of programmes such as RNP [required navigation performance] and ADS-B [automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast] will push avionics spending further."

These, together with the implementation of controller-pilot data-link communications (CPDLC), will spur the drive for interoperability as airlines increasingly adopt them.

In navigation, which is the most competitive avionics segment according to Papiomytis, GNSS will drive the retrofit market in the medium term, as outdated navigation aids are decommissioned, while GPS and multimode receiver systems will do so in the short term.

Integrated architectures

Integration levels will increase too. "Federated architectures, whereby individual components were integrated but not designed to work together, are becoming the exception in new aircraft that feature open architectures," said Papiomytis.

"Integrated modular avionics [onboard distributed real-time computer networks] are being adopted widely, as operators and aircraft integrators require avionics suppliers to use standard architectures and data formats on new designs."

Airliners such as the 787 and the A350 use IMA, says his analyst colleague Wayne Plucker, who adds that glass cockpits – those featuring large LCD digital displays, driven by flight management systems – along with enhanced awareness systems will also be in demand.

"Glass cockpits are now the standard, even in piston aircraft," he said. "Enhanced vision systems, synthetic visions systems and heads-up displays are also making inroads."

"What the market is looking for is a multifunction product that will format data."

Papiomytis says both federated and IMA systems will offer significant opportunities for software upgrades. One initiative here is the Proartis project in the EU.

A collaboration between academia and manufacturers such as Airbus, with its aim is to define novel software and hardware architectures for critical real-time embedded (CRTE) systems, will therefore have clear implications for next-generation avionics.

Modern aircraft need millions of lines of code just for onboard control functions such as guidance and navigation and even the most modest projections predict a fourfold increase in performance will be required for onboard processors in next-generation aircraft.

Existing hardware platforms may struggle to cope with these new demands, say the project’s organisers, so over the next few years their goal will be to use what are called probabilistic analysis techniques to enable avionics systems to take full advantage of advanced hardware, such as deep-memory hierarchies and multicore processors.

One impact of this will be to allow designers to schedule more tasks while reducing weight, power consumption and size, something that chimes with the views of the only supplier able and willing to contribute to this article, Meggitt Avionics.

The ‘cutting edge’?

A company spokesman said: "At the moment, ‘cutting edge’ avionics has a rather different meaning from what it would have traditionally been. It’s not about a new technology that hasn’t been seen before but rather improving the capability of existing technologies through strategic development. If your product can be developed then consider factors such as reduced weight and size, yet with a reduced cost and maximum efficiency, as that’s what is of most interest."

As regards which technologies are the ones to watch out for in the next few years, the spokesman said it will be: "Any technology that can be integrated into existing platforms, that can read and analyse information from the plane’s sensors and probes – including those from other manufacturers – and display it on one screen to create an environment for more efficient monitoring of the aircraft. What the market is looking for is a multifunction product that will format data and present the information to a pilot quickly and effectively."

It won’t all be plain flying, however. As Papiomytis says: "The market is entering a new development phase, as regulatory authorities in the US and Europe strive to create efficiencies in the skies and on the ground. The full implementation of the SES and NextGen programmes and the availability of state funding for operators will drive avionics demand in the medium- to long-term."

"Airliners such as the 787 and the A350 use IMA, says analyst Wayne Plucker."

On this point of funding, Meggitt Avionics said: "As with all large projects and product developments across any industry, demand has to come from a genuine need from the customer. Therefore funding from them has too, in order to provide the solution they desire. Funding must take into account a great many aspects, the key ones being time, certification and testing before it can even be put into production.

"Unlike the analogy ‘build it and they will come’, to bring more technology into the sector the customers have to bring the budgets to build it. Only after projects have been completed with production of often what is a bespoke solution for an aircraft, is it then considered for additional applications."

Standards, too, are another caveat. Papiomytis said: "The lack of global standards and the prioritisation of implementation over harmonisation pose significant challenges for operators and we expect harmonisation to come as a result of OEM-operator partnerships, rather than through regulatory authorities."

That clearly presents another opportunity for those suppliers who can come up with the right goods at the right time, and – as in other industry sectors – be in a position to set the de facto standards.