Modern aerospace platforms demand a greater number of more sophisticated capabilities to satisfy mission requirements in transportation, defense and other applications. The advanced capabilities required in aircraft today are increasingly powered by the electrical and electronic (E/E) systems. The result is a growth in the importance and complexity of E/E systems across the aerospace industry. In fact, over the last 30 years, the electrical power demand on aircraft has increased by a factor of 10. While the growth in aerospace E/E systems has introduced new challenges, it is also creating new opportunities.
To date, aerospace companies have primarily focused on replacing hydraulic, pneumatic and mechanical systems with electric or hybrid systems. By implementing these capabilities through the E/E systems, aerospace manufacturers can achieve gains in reliability, reductions in weight and, thus, overall reductions in cost of a platform.
Reducing aircraft weight is particularly impactful as it cuts the overall energy demand, enabling the operator to carry more passengers and cargo or achieve longer flight durations for the same amount of fuel. Simultaneously, electric systems can cut maintenance costs and increase the availability of aircraft.
Electric propulsion systems, on the other hand, have proven more challenging to implement in the aerospace industry.
Chief among these challenges has been the power density of available electrical energy storage technologies.
So far, manufacturers have struggled to carry enough electrical power onboard an aircraft to enable sufficient flight time for most missions. Even so, all-electric propulsion remains a promising option for training aircraft, as well as air taxis and other electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) applications.
There is a new transition toward networks and distributed processing in aircraft.
Aerospace manufacturers have traditionally sequestered on-board processing into dedicated line-replaceable units (LRUs).
Today, companies are investigating greater use of integrated modular avionics (IMA), akin to the multi-function electronic control units common in the auto industry. IMA units distribute processing among multiple computing modules, each capable of supporting applications of various levels of criticality. This reduces the overall number of independent processing units, while making it easier to implement functional redundancy.
The result is a simplified development process for embedded software and hardware integration—and added complexity and challenge in the design, optimization and verification of electrical system architectures.
Due to the long service lives of aircraft, modification and retrofitting are key to the aerospace industry. These electrical architectures must be designed to accommodate new software and hardware components to support the requirements of future missions.
Along the way, data integrity will need to be maintained throughout all the changes made to each tail number over its lifecycle. Companies must ensure that changes and updates are traceable and auditable to prove regulatory compliance.
In light of these challenges and opportunities, the most sophisticated platform developers are taking a multi-disciplinary systems approach to platform development to optimize performance metrics in both the mechanical and electrical domains.
For the best possible platform, mechanical and electrical systems are being developed in concert with knowledge of how innovative ideas in one discipline helps or hurts the implementation objectives of the other.
Further, model-based descriptions of the functions required from both disciplines are being brought together and assessed in tandem.
Configuration-controlled, electromechanical digital twins allow designers and systems engineers to make early predictions of how architectural trade-offs will impact key platform characteristics, such as power, weight and flight time. This kind of real-time insight was unavailable until recently. It is revolutionizing what is possible for electrification in the aerospace industry.