The Science Fiction of Avionics

By Gordon Walker — January 27, 2014

Here we are, 2014, well into the second decade of the 21st century, and a full 30 years beyond a time when we were darkly tantalized by the realization that George Orwell’s ominous date of 1984 would soon be upon us! As an avid reader and casual collector of sci-fi novels, I find it fascinating to read books which, when written, were set in the “near-future”, but now, like “1984”, are actually in our past. So much of the post-World War II sci-fi writing postulates on transportation and electronic visions of the future, that, as one who has spent his life in the field of avionics, I cannot help but muse about how much they got right.  From a technical perspective, one must also ponder the possibility that perhaps it was a fictional notion of a future technology that led to the actual development and creation of such wondrous devices we now take for granted.

In the 1860s, author Jules Verne wrote of men travelling to the moon, as did H.G. Wells in 1901. Although Verne’s concept of launching the astronauts by means of a giant cannon was not employed (NASA preferring to go with the Saturn V rocket), by 1969, manned flight to the moon was a reality. It’s interesting to note, in terms of technological developments, that the astronauts aboard Apollo 11 used slide rules, paper charts, and a sextant to guide them to their landing at Tranquility Base on the moon. Many of us now can’t imagine driving to a friend’s cottage without the aid of a GPS (Global Positioning System) navigation system, let alone flying to the moon.

And what of the GPS? It has become such a common part of the aviation and avionics world, and indeed the world at large. Used extensively by everyone from car rental agencies, to police and fire departments, to golfers and fishermen, GPS technology has become an integral part of life in the 21st century. GPS allows friends to find each other in crowded dance clubs, and couples to reconnect while shopping in a busy Costco store. (I first saw this conceptualized on Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” when often a crew member would ask the computer the location of another person aboard the ship/station).  Not only does this allow us to hook up in jam-packed bars, but it also means that traditional avionics approach aids such as localizer and glideslope are being rendered obsolete by GPS, which allows greater flexibility and more efficient multiple approach paths.

The entire operation of the GPS is, of course, based upon receiving radio signals from orbiting satellites. Orbiting GPS satellites circle the earth at a speed of approximately 14,000 kmh. Orbiting satellites can often be seen by the naked eye, as they appear to be stars moving at very high speed. The invention of the other type of satellite, the “geosynchronous” satellite is often (erroneously) credited to sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke. Unlike orbiting satellites, geosynchronous satellites remain in a fixed position above the earth’s surface, and are used extensively for telecommunications purposes.  Although he didn’t actually “invent” the geosynchronous satellite, Clarke did popularize the concept, which undoubtedly led to its development. Clarke’s first published mention of the geosynchronous satellite concept appeared in 1945, in a magazine called Wireless World.

Now THERE is word that has taken on a whole new life — wireless. As a kid, my friends would snicker when my Scottish parents would shout, “Turn that wireless down, it’s too bloody loud!” Wireless was their word for radio. Now, “wireless” is used extensively with a vast array of electronics, such as microphones, speakers, headsets and so on, but chiefly it is used to describe wireless internet connectivity, or “WiFi” which is actually a trademark name but, like Kleenex and Aspirin, it has become a generic term meaning wireless internet connection. Wireless Local Area Networks (WLAN) are beginning to weave themselves into the fabric of modern avionics systems. Many airlines, including Air Canada, are moving away from hard-wired passenger entertainment systems in favour of wireless networks, offering on-demand audio and video entertainment. Servers aboard the aircraft allow passengers to access music, movies and various other forms of entertainment on their own video display devices.  I recently watched Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War classic “Full Metal Jacket” on my iPhone, while winging my way to Europe aboard an Air Canada Rouge flight.

The blending of digitized information storage and retrieval with wireless transmission techniques is enabling avionics developments that could have only been conceptualized by science fiction writers a few short years ago. The difficulty in locating the flight data recorder (FDR) and cockpit voice recorder (CVR) after the Air France flight 447 crash ignited a drive toward the concept of transmission and remote storage of data rather than keeping it aboard the aircraft. The concept is simple: rather than storing cockpit voice recordings and flight data information on board the aircraft, digitize all of that information, and then transmit it to satellite receivers, which can send the data to internet servers on the ground. This would eliminate the need for costly and sometimes futile searches for CVRs and FDRs, should an aircraft crash over water or in remote/hostile environments. The information could be encrypted to ensure privacy and confidentiality, and updated/deleted on an ongoing and frequent basis.

Early arguments against such a concept centred on bandwidth and data storage limitations. However, both these issues have been largely overcome. One can now purchase a memory card no larger than a postage stamp, which is capable of storing 128 megabytes of data, so storing a few hours worth of data from an aircraft hardly seems like an insurmountable computer problem.

Of course the greatest and most relevant example of avionics science fiction probably was that troublesome computer HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey”. According to Wikipedia, in addition to controlling the systems aboard the Discovery Spacecraft,  “HAL is capable of speech, speech recognition, facial recognition, natural language processing, lip reading, art appreciation, interpreting and reproducing emotional behaviours, reasoning, and playing chess.”

When one considers the extent to which computers control today’s aircraft engines and systems, the fact that we are now employing retina scanning for identification purposes, and the degree to which computer gaming has flourished, Arthur C. Clarke was pretty much right on the money.

As we comfortably settle into the new millennium, and reflect upon the flights of fancy penned by inspired writers such as Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, et al, whose ideas have become commonplace in our present reality, it’s hard to believe that we are not capable of creating virtually anything our minds are capable of envisioning. What science fiction visionaries of today will turn out to be the harbingers of avionics developments tomorrow? A brave new world, indeed.
And now, I must return to my workshop, as I strive to perfect my Woody Allen inspired “Orgasmatron”.

Q:  What type of satellites are used to transmit GPS data?

Answer to previous question:

Q:  How is an air traffic controller using NextGen technology able to verbally communicate with an aircraft hundreds or even thousands of miles away?

A: Verbal and data communications are digitized and distributed through an electronic networking system

About The Author

Gordon Walker

GORDON WALKER entered the avionics industry after graduation from Centennial College in 1980. His career with Nordair, Air Canada, CP Air, PWA, and ultimately Canadian Airlines took him to many remote corners of Canada. Since leaving the flight line to pursue a career as a college professor, Walker has continued to involve himself in the aviation/avionics industry, by serving on several CARAC Committees concerning the training and licensing of AMEs, being nominated to the CAMC Board of Directors, and being elected President of the National Training Association. (NTA).

View all articles by Gordon Walker.