A Short Primer on Today’s Avionics Test Equipment
Avionics testing equipment is a group of systems used in the research, development, manufacturing, testing, and maintenance of electronic communications systems in aircraft. It plays a critical role in the end-to-end design, development, and maintenance of all types of aircraft systems intended for military, commercial, and private applications. In addition to testing and R&D, avionic test equipment assists engineers and aircraft companies in regulatory compliance as aircraft avionics are heavily controlled by federal regulations, specifications, and standards.
Avionic testing equipment can involve testing and simulation using standards such as MIL-STD-1553 and ARINC-429 and embedded systems such as multi-protocol modules and interfaces. Aircraft avionics can differ according to its type and application, requiring test equipment to customize and present itself according to the specifications. With a constantly changing industry that is heavily regulated in order to ensure a safe flying environment for all stakeholders, there is a growing need for advanced avionic test equipment that is both customizable and easily programmable.
While the aerospace and defense boom occurred decades ago, technological advancement has given rise to more advanced R&D equipment. In recent years the requirements have increased too, with the testing prowess managing to fend for those industry needs.
Here’s a quick rundown on what avionics test equipment is, why it matters, and how it helps improve overall aircraft safety.
What is Avionics Test Equipment?
Avionics test equipment is a blanket term for devices, standards, and equipment used to test avionic systems from design to manufacturing to assembly.
For example, tests related to temperature and humidity variation are usually carried out during the design and manufacturing stages. Yet, there is a need (not just limited to FAA regulations) to test it again after the avionics components are assembled and installed on the aircraft. This is for several reasons including to check the possibility of malfunction. It is not uncommon for avionics parts to function properly independently but then malfunction when assembled on an aircraft.
In such cases, the avionics test equipment come to the rescue in understanding the root cause. Temperature cycling, burn-in, and humidity testing are all critical methods of aircraft and avionics testing. So much that they command a good part of the overall cost involved in the manufacturing of an aircraft.
Testing and troubleshooting of avionics systems after they have been installed on the aircraft is perhaps the most important part. For example, the ARINC-717 standard is widely used for telecommunications inside an aircraft. Is the standard working seamlessly with other components? This is a question that can be answered when the entire avionics system is put to test.
Common Avionics Test Equipment
In avionics, the most common testing systems are those that can help test and troubleshoot in real-time and provide feedback and continuous data to the testing team. Data capture is very important to ensure that the testing bears results and the system being tested can be fixed and put back in service.
Here’s a list of common avionics testing and simulation products of Excalibur Systems:
- Multi-Protocol Modules for PCI computers
- MIL-STD-1553 and related standards
- ARINC-429, ARINC-708, ARINC-717
- Mini Munitions Store Interface
- Bus and Ethernet
- Power supply units
These individual devices come together to create a simulation environment in which aircraft avionics can be tested in real-time.
Here’s a quick look at how multi-protocol boards are used as essential avionic test equipment. With a multi-protocol board, engineers can simulate different conditions to test an entire avionics system in the same process. There is no need to plug and fiddle with different parts. It acts as a one-stop solution to test the entire avionics system.
Boards that work with MIL-STD-1553 and ARINC-429 will continue to be used across simulation exercises as new avionic systems are built over previous underlying architecture. In a way, such systems help the industry upgrade gradually and cost-effectively.
Avionics Testing Use Cases Post Assembly
There are several ways in which avionics test equipment is put to use. Some of the common ways are discussed below.
Stress testing is a common avionics testing strategy. It typically involves putting the system under stress using temperature, pressure, or electricity and then checking how it responds. This is perhaps the most resource-sensitive method as it requires the testing equipment to be customized. Not to mention the need for supervisors to handle the process. A good example of this is the preservation of black boxes in aircraft mishaps. How the black box communicates and mainly receives and stores crucial information and how effective it will be in a time of crisis is what an avionics test equipment can check.
Another testing strategy involves doing it periodically as part of the regulations such as those outlined by the FAA and FAR. Because some parts tend to degrade over time, they need to be tested regularly to detect any potential issues, and thereby consider their replacement on time.
Confirming issues presented in the aircraft squawk sheet is another use case. Pilots and other operators can add a note about different parts that they feel have some issues. These issues are then checked for and confirmed or denied, after which the system is sent back to service. In many cases, such tests lead to NFF or “no fault found”, which is an ideal outcome. But it doesn’t save the company from the costs involved in testing. This is also why standalone testing equipment is critical. Companies can program and calibrate the test equipment according to its needs and minimize the overall cost.
Modern Avionics Testing Equipment
As mentioned above, although the avionics boom began decades ago, technological improvement has further led to better testing and simulation equipment. For instance, today’s control protocols and systems allow aircraft companies to configure testing equipment according to its systems while still following industry requirements and regulations.
Over time, even the applications of testing equipment have expanded. Some of the modern applications are:
- Real-time testing and simulation to avoid the overhead of logistics.
- Customized reports according to the type of system used.
- Automated testing systems attached to the aircraft.
Of course, there will be challenges going ahead as both equipment manufacturers and aircraft companies scramble to understand how to keep up with a demanding industry and general advancement without affecting internal budgets and timelines.
We have previously discussed the challenges faced by avionic test equipment manufacturers. In the age of automated test equipment (ATE), there will always be a need to improve the status quo so as to simplify testing while staying within the regulations. One of the biggest concerns of aviation companies is the overhead that such testing and simulation bring to the table. If more cost-effective equipment can be designed, it will act as a great boon for the industry as a whole.
Intelligent automation is one way to approach these challenges as suggested by Andrew Reilly writing for Aerospace TechReview. The focus, he writes, should be on building systems that provide continuous real-time data so that engineers can spend more time analyzing the information rather than scrambling to understand how to extract it in the first place. “Development cycle efficiency will also increasingly involve automation driven by artificial intelligence and machine learning,” he quotes industry experts working on the challenges.
Cloud testing is suggested as another way to help engineers save time, money, and effort. A centralized testing system where testing data can be uploaded for everyone to view in real-time can help engineers take a cue from testing data from other similar aircraft. They can then use this data to correlate with their own inspection.
Improvements in software are also suggested but that’s usually a department not handled by the avionics testing equipment manufacturers. Most of them outsource software that is used in their testing equipment, but which has not seen any upgrade over the last decade. This point focuses on the need to upgrade the software being used to both develop and test avionics systems to be better able to collect data and add corrections when needed.
Avionics testing equipment is a crucial support for any aircraft starting from its design to its upkeep even decades later. It is part of the essential process that helps in the maintenance and thereby extends the overall lifespan of aircraft and its avionics systems. However, the need to upgrade so as to save on resources, efforts, and costs will always coexist with other inhibitions that mar the aerospace and defense industry. There’s just a need to let individual stakeholders innovate and improve for the benefit of the industry at large.
Excalibur Systems has always been a leading provider of avionics test equipment in the United States and other parts of the world. As the need for constant testing and simulation continues to build up, new systems will be designed that will make the job easier for everyone.
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