Modern Challenges for the Avionics Test Equipment Industry

2 October, 2019

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The avionics industry is continuously evolving with militaries and the commercial aerospace communities around the world looking to upgrade the capabilities of their aircraft and other aspects of flying. So, naturally, the pressure falls on the manufacturers who are looking at various ways to improve the way these pieces of machineries function. Both on the ground and while in the air. But more than them, the indirect pressure falls on those who develop avionics test equipment and other support systems. More so because these companies not only have to focus on the newer technologies that are being developed but also make sure that their avionics testing products can support older aircraft too.

This need to upgrade, as seen across the top militaries in the world such as the United States of America, Israel, and Russia, comes from the desire to extend the lifespan of aircraft machinery and thereby decrease the error rate. Even today, the failure of the majority of military operations is at least partly influenced by shortcomings of the avionics i.e. the communications. So, it is practical of them to desire that.

But for avionics test equipment manufacturers, the need of the hour is to look at the challenges involved as a result. Let’s go through some of these challenges.

Avionics Testing Challenges of the 21st Century

As observed by Avionics International, the need may also be because of service life extension programs and to avoid operational delays. Therefore, it is important to take a bird’s eye view of the situation. Only then can solutions be thought off and research kicked off.

All-on-One Testers

This is not a new idea at all; that companies demand that a single testing system be used for multiple aircraft types or weapon systems. Having to depend on different testing equipment for different systems can bleed the capital and other resources available with these organizations. This is something that has been underlined even by aircraft manufacturers like Lockheed Martin.

It calls for modern test equipment to have the capability and technological prowess to handle systems of different makes, types, and sizes. For instance, consider the comment by the director of Boeing Defense’s Space & Security Support Equipment and Services: “the current economic environment has reinforced the need to create more affordable ATE solutions which can be adapted to support multiple programs thereby reducing development and sustainment cost.” This is true for all types of organizations even as they look to minimize expenses. Whether it is a commercial airline carrier or a government.

A Support System Family

This is another trend that has been on its way since long. As mentioned above, companies cannot afford to have separate testing equipment for different systems. Instead, if there is a family of standardized testing equipment – one that can be used across a range of machines, it would massively help in cutting down costs. On the other hand, it will also help manufacturers give out avionics products as packages.

Exploring New Technologies

Military and aircraft standards have developed and are currently under active innovation, yet the need for older standards have not dwindled. For example, MIL-STD-1553 – probably the oldest and most popular telecommunications standard used today, still acts as an integral part of avionics. Same goes for ARINC 429 in the commercial aircraft sphere. However, the opposite is true for testing equipment.

Companies are pushing manufacturers of these systems to explore newer technologies. In 2012, two such new capabilities that were launched were directed infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) and digital RF memory DIRCM-based jammers for much better RF fidelity. More than half a decade later, although such systems are still in use, the demand higher is for new technologies.

A look at the shortcomings of today’s avionics testing systems will help manufacturers innovate. An example of such technology would be the ambitious Internet Protocol Suite (IPS) which aspires to aid in better air-to-ground data communication performance. According to a perspective report by Honeywell and published by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), although building or integrating IPS into existing avionics machinery will prove difficult to manufacturers, it shows great promise in improving the safety services associated with an aircraft. Other capabilities like IPv6 are already in deployment.

Automation is another big hurdle that companies need to refine. As getting workers to be on the ground is turning out to be more expensive and also dangerous (in some cases), the aim is to make aircraft fly for longer periods without (or with minimal) ground support. This shows that testing equipment need to be easier, automated, and faster.

Embracing New Standards

While old standards are still essential, manufacturers also need to focus on newer standards and interfaces such as LXI and VXI. Since more and more systems are connected through the Internet today, it makes sense to focus on standards that will allow manufacturers to easily integrate the new capabilities into their existing systems. To be honest, only an engineer who writes the upgrades for an aircraft communications system can describe the changes required in the equipment that will test it. Therefore, a much more transparent communication is required between the test equipment developers and the aircraft manufacturers.

It is known that instrumentation provides better flexibility as far as channel-wise communication is concerned, and research in that regard is the only way to understand how these new standards can help further assuage the problem of integration.

Military’s movement from the use of copper wires to optical fiber technology is also seen as a precursor to major changes required in the part of testers. Checking the functionality of an optical-fiber-based system using a copper-wire-based won’t give any results (due to incompatibility), plus the handling and maintenance of the former add to the expenses. Although optical fiber is a much more efficient data communication technology, bringing them into avionics also invites a series of problems for everyone involved.

Smart Testers

There is no reason why avionics test equipment cannot get smarter and stop the need for the assistance of man. Manufacturers have already started exploring automation and use of artificial intelligence (although cautiously), it is about time that technologies in avionics and smart tech join hands and bring about a much-needed change in how testing is carried out.

According to Charlotte Adams, writing for Avionics Magazine’s November 2018 issue, the threat that the cyber world brings into the world of avionics is something that needs to be focused on priority as manufacturers begin to innovate in their respective fields. “Avionics bus and network test instruments also need to be protected from hacking. And test data needs to be secured ‘when it resides in the [tester] and when it’s used and passed on to other systems’,” she quotes Troy Troshynski, VP of marketing and product development with Avionics Interface Technologies (AIT), a player in data-bus testing.

Automation, government regulations and military demands, fiber optics, and intermittent fault testing are some of the other biggest challenges that avionics products need to handle as manufacturers scramble to keep the market going.

An organization may choose to upgrade their aircraft machinery but having to also upgrade their test equipment does not sit right especially when austerity measures are in place for most military as well as commercial aircraft organizations. Therefore, the onus falls on both avionics product and test equipment manufacturers to keep a tab on these market changes and update their systems.

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