Sign Up For Updates
This site is a work in progress.
Learn More

Flight Pro

Taking to the skies with the cockpit of tomorrow.

I've wanted to fly ever since I can remember.  As I grew up I became engrossed in flight simulators and books. In 2018, I got to fly for the first time, and sitting in that cockpit got me thinking about how a lot of these systems could be updated. So I set out to learn about and design an updated interface for pilots.

Heading

Personal

Year Completed

2018

Project Duration

2 Months

Applications

Sketch, Sketchup

How might we...

...imagine the cockpit of tomorrow?

Antiquated but Reliable

Stepping into the cockpit in the plane I flew was like stepping back in time. A time before we grew to rely and depend on digital displays, a time of dials and guages. Even now, some instruments in modern aircraft continue to be analog. Reliability becomes a concern when you’re flying at 10,000MSL. So how do you design the cockpit of tomorrow with analog dials?

You don’t change the cockpit, you aim to augment it.

The first iteration of this project sought to look at how we could improve the cockpit in the constraints of technology today.

Cockpit of Cessna 172, the model most pilots get their pilot's license in. You can see almost everything here is analog.
Cockpit of Cessna Citation, a business jet. Even though most of the dash is dedicated to digital displays, there's still a lot of buttons and some built-in analog components.
Cockpit of Boeing 747. Many digital displays are present but as with the other cockpits, there's a lot more buttons and analog displays.

Antiquated but Reliable

Looking at what a pilot relies on vs what was augmenting the experience, you can separate what needs to be improved with what needs to be left alone. Flight controls like altimeter and artificial horizon are important tools for flying IFR (instrument flight rules, aka when you can’t see outside the cockpit). Information like navigation and surrounding aircraft are contained systems that aren’t crucial to flight. Additional information like turn by turn style flight plans and Voice to Text ATC transcripts are new features that add a level of intelligence to the experience and are helpful to the pilot.

Augmenting the cockpit while keeping current controls visible got me looking at current solutions. High tech navigation in dash are expensive instruments to add. Many pilots resort to downloading high fidelity maps to their tablets and flying with it tied to their legs. A Tesla-style vertical display in the dash allowed for good visual hierarchy while also fitting nicely into a compact cockpit.

Explorations, clockwise from top left: (Top left) Tesla style vertical display in a cockpit; (Right) closeup of screen exploring ATC Voice to Text, Flight Plan, Glide Plath, Flight Plan Map with weather, and ADS B In information; (Bottom left) Camera view that could show AR style glidepath.
Concepts for Tesla style vertical display: (Left) Early exploration with high-level information and turn by turn directions; (Right) Overview screen with ATC Voice to Text, Flight Plan, Glide Plath, and Map with ADS B In information, flight path, and weather.

Flying into the future

Having flown through the first phase of this project and arriving a good solution, I found that I wanted to go further. Up to that point I had concerned myself with existing constraints in technology and reliablitiy of existing tech. But I was also watching shows like Hulu’s The First, which showed a future that felt far advanced in tech, but close enough to be just within reach. I started imagining what if..  

What if we removed the constraints of today and designed for the future we wanted. What would I want the future of flight to look like if I had the power to design it. I did, after all, have the power to explore that.

Final design for the full screen dash. This would be a glass display that could change based on the needs of the pilot.

What I came up with was replacing the entire dash with a full touch screen display. This is the type of future tech that I was seeing in the films and shows but still felt achievable in today’s world.

What if we removed the constraints of today and designed for the future we wanted. What would I want the future of flight to look like if I had the power to design it. I did, after all, have the power to explore that.

Old School Dials

Bringing the dials of the old dash and digitizing them allowed the ability to show additional contextual information in a familiar layout. This could be adjusted to the pilot's liking.

Information At a Glance

Vital information is clutered in the visor above the main display, allowing for glanceable information. This keeps the pilots’ eyes on the skies. Additiional info like flight plan and ATC info is kept at the sides.

Situational Awareness

ADS B information shows nearby pilots and a way to commuinicate with them. Flight paths, maps, and radar gives both pilots all the information they need to be aware.

Real-world use cases

When I was exploring this back in early 2018, my main fear was that this full touch-screen experience was too unrealistic. How would pilots use this interface in high-stakes situations? How would the touch-screen translate in the cockpit? Would changing layouts introduce challenges for pilots? In 2020, the world got a look at how some of this would work when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon featured a similar display.

Astronauts control Crew Dragon through touch-screen displays on their way to the International Space Station.
(Image: © SpaceX)

Changing Perspectives

Designing a full touch screen all-glass display that spans an entire cockpit is interesting enough in itself. Thinking to the future tech that I was seeing in movies and shows, I wanted to explore the tech that would power the future. AR is an emerging field that I'm very interested in. I took this idea and applied it to a full windshield HUD concept. HUDs aren't new in flight, we have them in fighter planes and commercial jets. But these displays are basic, both in scope and complexity.

I removed the constraints of today's technology and explored use cases for AR in flight. I created a couple of concepts that would lay over the pilot's field of view, making them aware of dangerous situations, helping them land, and making them aware of other planes and elements in the sky.

These displays needed to be simple in design and not fill the entire field of view with information that wasn't necessary to the pilot at that time. It should blend into the background and only serve as a supplemental piece of information to help the pilot make the decisions they need to make.

Glide slope display like the one used in training simulations. Flying through the center of the boxes ensures a successful landing. Additional information next to the glide slope provides contextual information important to landing.
Tenzing Hillary Airport, the closest airport to Mt Everest, is known as the most dangerous runway in the world due to its incredibly short runway. Letting the pilot know how far the the drop-off can ensure they can take off in time.
Cloud cover can obstruct mountains and be a danger to pilots. AR can help highlight these risks so pilots can have greater situational awareness.
Similarly, letting pilots know that they’re below mountain ranges can help guide them to safety.
Flying through controlled airspace means dealing with a lot of other pilots and aircraft. Seeing things like the aiport, elevation, and distance as well as other aircraft in the area can improve situational awareness.

Designing the cockpit of the future

I had a lot of questions about how this design would look and function in a physical space. Since I usually design for desktop and mobile experiences, a large display like this is new. Thinking about interaction design in a functional environment like a cockpit presented challenges. I wanted to get a sense of the physical space this would take up. I don't have much experience with 3D tools outside SketchUp, so I turned to that application to get a sense of scale.

As I start to explore 3D tools like Unity, my goal for this project is to place this in a real-world environment.  Throwing on a VR headset and looking around would give me a good sense of the application. Another option is to put the display into a model airplane in a flight simulator. Programs like XPlane 11 or Microsoft Flight Simulator work well. Seeing everything in context will help me understand the parts of the design that are too complicated or may not be as crucial.

Rough Sketchup model of cockpit with dash. Final display is likely to be slightly curved and more angled.
View of outside from dash, highlights the offset of the visor.
See Site Status