Real-time sonic boom display moves closer to cockpit integration

NASA’s initial depiction of sonic boom footprint integrated with real-time, local-area moving map(Credit: NASA)

The Concorde may be just a memory, but some aircraft manufacturers still see supersonic aircraft as the future of civilian aviation. To allow for widespread supersonic flight over populated areas without shattering windows and frightening chickens, electronics firm Rockwell Collins has been awarded a two-year NASA contract to develop a 3D cockpit display to help pilots of future supersonic aircraft to mitigate or eliminate sonic booms.

Back in the 1960s, supersonic planes looked like the future of civilian air travel, but by 1970 a number of hurdles presented themselves, which reduced the world's faster than sound passenger fleet to 20 Concordes flown by British Airways and Air France. One of the biggest problems was sonic boom, which is caused by air being pushed ahead of the plane that forms a shockwave that makes a very loud bang as the plane passes. This meant that when Concorde went into service, it was only allowed to fly past Mach 1 over the ocean, away of populated areas. Needless to say, this made an already expensive aircraft even less competitive.

Modern aircraft engineers are looking at all sorts of ways to reduce the sonic boom problem, such as new fuselage and nose designs, new wings, and new engine nacelles all made to reduce the shockwave. But sonic booms aren't that simple. Their formation isn't just a matter of how the plane is put together. There are all sorts of other factors involved and what NASA wants Rockwell Collins to do is to come up with a cockpit or flight deck display that can make a visual representation of the sonic boom for the pilot that allows them to configure, redirect, or eliminate the boom while flying over populated areas.

The Rockwell Collins display is based on the Real-Time Sonic Boom Display developed by NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center with the aid of the US Air Force. It takes real-time information, such as ground-based and aircraft-based weather data, atmospheric conditions, altitude, acceleration, course, terrain, speed, and aircraft configuration to predict the direction and shape of sonic booms on the ground, and recommends actions to minimize or eliminate them.

It does this by generating an interactive 3D display map using a processor that crunches the data in real time and calculates potential sonic booms in the path of the aircraft. The system then produces a visual trace of the location and intensity of booms, as well as a menu of pre-programmed maneuvers for reducing or eliminating the boom by means of changes in course or acceleration.

According to Rockwell Collins, the technology will be applied in NASA’s High Speed Project with the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center leading the research with the help of the Rockwell Collins’ Advanced Technology Center. NASA says that the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will require similar systems for filing flight plans and monitoring flights if civilian supersonic flight once again becomes a reality.

"In order for supersonic travel over land to happen, pilots will need an intuitive display interface that tells them where the aircraft’s sonic boom is occurring," says John Borghese, vice president, Advanced Technology Center for Rockwell Collins. "Our team of experts will investigate how best to show this to pilots in the cockpit and develop guidance to most effectively modify the aircraft’s flight path to avoid populated areas or prevent sonic booms."

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