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Navigating the Skies: Advances in Aerospace Navigation and Surveillance

May 18, 2024


​​​​Recent conflicts have illustrated the immense value of autonomous aircraft in combat. Civilian tragedies like the disappearance of MH370 likewise underscore the need for better aerospace navigation and surveillance systems. Regardless of the application, the aerospace industry as a whole is taking autonomous flying seriously. In order to build a fully self-flying future, better navigation and surveillance systems are essential. Major aerospace companies are implementing new technologies to make it happen. Consider a few examples and emerging technologies.

Navigating the Skies: Advances in Aerospace Navigation and Surveillance

Miniaturizing Existing Technology

Modern aircraft are equipped with a series of transponders and receivers to relay data to and from the aircraft. These include GPS receivers, air traffic control transponders, satellite antennas, traditional radio receivers and transmitters, and more. The Boeing 787 features over 20 separate antennas for communication, though some of these are redundant backups for safety. An important advancement today is miniaturization, with the goal of squeezing more of these vital technologies into smaller aircraft.

The same holds true for onboard flight computers, which can autonomously navigate the skies using data from both sensors and external sources. Shrinking these down with modern designs grants more capabilities to smaller vehicles, including military aircraft and drones. Reducing the size of these components also lowers their power consumption, which is crucial for lightweight electric surveillance UAVs. However, this is just using existing technology, what about new developments in navigation and surveillance technology?

Augmented Reality for Difficult Conditions

Augmented reality has already been in cockpits to some extent through head-mounted displays and heads-up displays. However, until now, most of these systems have displayed rudimentary information that was already available somewhere else on the flight deck. Today, engineers are developing systems that introduce far more information to help pilots navigate in all kinds of circumstances. In particular, there are new AR headsets that can provide visual information about terrain and buildings even in degraded visual environments.

Suppose a pilot has to fly into mountainous terrain but has low visibility due to thick fog. In such a situation, a pre-planned flight path would have been designed to avoid any obstacles. Nevertheless, any deviation from that plan could prove fatal. With modern AR equipment, however, the pilot could actually see an overlay of the terrain derived from satellite mapping data, essentially removing the fog and helping the pilot navigate accurately. This has vital civilian and military applications.

Autonomous Navigation Tools

Just as the automotive industry seeks to make the driver redundant, so too has the aerospace industry focused heavily on autonomous navigation. Fortunately, it’s a much easier task in the sky as there are fewer opportunities for collisions. Still, autonomous flying depends heavily on predetermined flight paths. The aerospace industry wants to change that to allow for more dynamic flight paths. This means that aircraft themselves must process data and make decisions.

To that end, there are three key technologies that must be implemented for full autonomy. Better imaging tools are required for the aircraft to be able to see the land below. Artificial intelligence is required to interpret that information accurately and make flight decisions. Finally, aircraft need to be able to overcome technologies designed to hinder their performance, which is especially important in surveillance and military applications. Let’s look at how each of these three areas has advanced.

Improved Imaging 

LIDAR has been touted as the best technology to use for instant imaging onboard a vehicle. Airbus agrees, having announced a partnership with a leading LIDAR company just a few years ago. LIDAR can produce accurate maps of the environment in real time, including other aircraft or obstacles that may not be stationary or that have been installed since the latest map data update. This technology can be used to navigate safely, as well as surveil areas from above.

By using a range of light frequencies, it’s possible to penetrate cloud cover, making LIDAR effective in all kinds of weather. Furthermore, LIDAR is difficult to jam. A defensive countermeasure must match the exact light frequency and pulse rate. Even if jamming occurs, LIDAR systems can make slight adjustments on the fly to counter jamming attempts. Boeing has been developing surveillance aircraft using this technology for over a decade, and more are expected to enter service.

Artificial Intelligence

Visualizing the environment is only half of the equation. In order for an aircraft to have true autonomy in the skies, it must also be able to process that data and take action. This is where artificial intelligence has become paramount. More expensive consumer drone models already feature this technology, albeit to a very limited extent using proximity sensors. As the value of the aircraft increases, so too does the value of AI in guiding its flight patterns.

With more advanced AI chips becoming available from suppliers like Nvidia, vehicles can have their own onboard AI computers that process data from sensors and cameras. They can then direct flight controls to respond to potential impacts or incoming threats. This technology is being tested widely across a number of applications.

Overcoming Obstacles

Aircraft, especially military aircraft, need to be able to overcome attempts to thwart their systems. Full autonomy is itself a countermeasure to jamming methods that prevent a remote pilot from giving instructions to the aircraft. However, radio and light jamming methods can hinder an aircraft’s ability to read the environment on its own. As a result, new designs feature an assortment of technologies so that if one is lost, another can provide data in its place.

Overall, the industry is trending towards full autonomy in every application. This has a trickle-down effect for assembly facilities and component suppliers. Is your company ready to supply the next generation of aircraft? Contact SAAB RDS to schedule a meeting with our aerospace industry experts to find out. We can help you modernize your operations for the future of aviation.