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Intelligent Machines

Networked Cockpit

Boeing’s “electronic flight bag” brings more computation to the skies.

The industrial world may be electronically networked, but the pilot in a typical passenger jet still communicates through tinny radio voice links, pores over paper manuals to troubleshoot warning lights, and looks out the window to find the right taxiway. But this year, Chicago-based Boeing is attempting to boost safety and efficiency by bringing more computation to the skies.

Boeing calls its innovation an “electronic flight bag”-a package of advanced software and hardware in a deceptively simple-looking box built into the cockpit. The box, which has a 26-centimeter (diagonal) display, is meant to replace the pilot’s briefcase full of maps and manuals, and also to provide wireless data links to ground crews and airline offices. It’s largely geared toward improving safety: for example, by summoning a virtual map of an airport’s taxiways, with the plane’s satellite-derived location highlighted, pilots can avoid straying onto active runways. But thanks to real-time Internet connectivity via satellite, pilots will also be able to view digital weather maps of their destinations, or send requests for maintenance, speeding operations. Craig Larson, chief engineer of flight services for Boeing, says the device “makes an individual airplane a node in a larger airline and maintenance network.”

Boeing expects to announce its first customer for the technology this year. Rival Airbus says it’s working on a similar package of hardware and services. While initially helping pilots “get rid of a big bag of paper,” says MIT aeronautics engineer Jim Kuchar, the system could ultimately become “a major step” toward a data exchange system that improves safety and reduces delays.

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