Imagine showing up at the airport to catch your flight, looking at your plane, and noticing that instead of windows, the cockpit is now a smooth cone of aluminum. It may seem like the worst case of quality control in history, but Airbus argues that this could be the airliner of the future. In a new US patent application, the EU aircraft consortium outlines a new cockpit design that replaces the traditional cockpit with one that uses 3D view screens instead of conventional windows.
There’s a reason why cockpits are traditionally in the nose of a plane – not the least of which is the pilot being able to see where they're going. In addition to flying, being up front provides a clear view forward and downward for landing and taxiing. That’s all very useful, but it does tend to ruin the aerodynamics of the aircraft’s nose, which would ideally be lancet shaped. As aircraft have grown larger and more complicated, the nose has come to also include the radome, crew rest area and the front landing gear, and the current cockpit design reflects this.
Another problem is that aerospace engineers hate windows. They may be popular with passengers who like to see outside, and pilots, who like to not bang into things, but engineers see them as nothing but points of weakness in what should, ideally, be a solid cylinder. If nothing else, they’ll point to the alarming Comet airliner crashes of the 1950s, which were traced back to poor window design fatally weakening the fuselage. Windows mean heavy reinforcements and multiple layers of glass and plastic to strengthen hull integrity. In addition, placing the cockpit in the nose reduces the cabin size, where every inch is measured in thousands of dollars lost per flight.
The Airbus patent shows a windowless cockpit that removes the windows or reduces them to partial views of the outside world. Instead, exterior views are provided by a display formed by back projection, lasers, holograms, or OLED imaging systems fed by cameras outside the fuselage. In addition, there are stereo cameras for taxiing and parking, and augmented reality can be used to highlight weather conditions, navigation beacons, air routes, hazards, and other information. There are even holographic displays of a globe displaying navigation and weather data, and a Star Wars-like holographic projector that Darth Vader would enjoy.
The idea of a windowless cockpit may seem a bit mad at first, but there are some real advantages if Airbus can pull it off and get the public to accept it. The proposed system widens the pilot’s field of view, which is always good, and provides more flexibility about what information is displayed and how it's displayed. It reduces the weight of the aircraft, therefore increasing fuel efficiency, and it increases the flexibility of aircraft design. Security can also be increased by making the cabin as hardened as possible – even separating it entirely from the passenger cabin.
At the moment, the windowless cockpit is just a concept, but if the public is willing to go along with it, the smooth airliner could be the plane of the future.