Superior Interiors: Innovations in Modern Aircraft Design

21 October 2010 (Last Updated October 21st, 2010 18:30)

Liam Stoker examines innovations in interior design in commercial and military aircraft that are saving space and fuel.

Superior Interiors: Innovations in Modern Aircraft Design

The aerospace and defence sectors are not exempt from austerity measures, and need to be as aware of the environmental impact of air travel as their civilian counterparts.

As a result, moves are being made to use innovative interior design ideas to not only enhance passenger experience, but also to improve the efficiency and environmental impact of aircraft performance.

New life for dead space

The concept of making the most of limited space is one fully subscribed to by Honda Aircraft. Its HondaJet business jet aims to set a new standard for interior space and comfort in the air.

Honda worked extensively alongside the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in the US to design the cockpit, making pilot behaviour and comfort central to its layout. The business jet uses the Garmin G3000 glass cockpit system, the first touchscreen glass integrated avionics system designed for light turbine aircraft. A 14.1in integrated display saves space in the cockpit, while easily displaying vital flight information.

Space saving, and its offshoot of fuel efficiency, was important in the cabin too.

“Boeing has been experimenting with seating design ideas that maximise passenger comfort and increase available space.”

The improved comfort of the aircraft comes from the fuselage design. The co-cured, honeycomb structure is constructed entirely of composite materials, producing a lighter aircraft with increased space inside. The advanced fuselage configuration also contributes, allowing a larger interior cabin.

Operational benefits

Military aircraft are also in a position to benefit greatly from innovations in interior design. The joint strike fighter project aircraft, the F-35 Lightning II, has seen the analogue steam gauge dials most commonly associated with fighter aircraft replaced by a liquid-crystal touchscreen display.

The screen displays all information required by the pilot, enabling a quick display change when necessary and containing all radio and mission system information.

The new display system saves space and puts all essential read-outs on a simple screen at the fingertips of the pilot.

The F-22 Raptor, developed by Lockheed Martin, like the F-35, uses a single piece of monolithic polycarbonate material in its cockpit. With no canopy bow, it offers improved optics and, unlike the F-16, does not contain any laminated sheets, meaning the aircraft is significantly lighter.

The F-22 Raptor cockpit, through its design, can also accommodate 99% of the air force pilot population because it is sized for everyone between the 0.5th and 99.5th percentiles, an increase of 9% over competitive aircraft, traditionally modelled for the fifth and 95th percentile of active pilots.

Taking a seat

Boeing has been experimenting with seating design ideas that maximise passenger comfort and increase available space. Advancements in seat and seat-cushion technology, utilising ergonomic data, are adding up to 3.5in of legroom to a standard economy-class seat on the 777. This is achieved by subtle changes made to the aluminium seat frame and puts Boeing some way ahead of equivalent seats on its Airbus rival, the A340.

“LEDs offer longer lifetimes, reduced downtime for maintenance and lower power consumption.”

Another take on maximising space efficiency through the use of seating design, and one stereotypically used by short-haul aircraft, is the method of choosing one particular seat design throughout the aircraft, and merely supplementing the seat with optional extras. Improved cushioning and in-flight entertainment can be added as the flight class and haulage increases.

Design elements of the aircraft interior can also be used to convey a sense of space where seats are packed to capacity, improving passenger perception of available space. The use of curved ceilings and innovative lighting to create space is an old trick that is being put to new use in modern aircraft.

Making light of innovations

Boeing is also exploring innovative approaches to interior lighting to make their aircraft “greener” and cut down on emissions.

One such innovation in Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is the use of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) instead of bulbs. LEDs offer longer lifetimes, reduced downtime for maintenance and lower power consumption, resulting in a cost and emission friendly alternative.

As a result, Boeing selected Goodrich to supply an LED-based lighting system for the 787’s flight deck and German-based Diehl Luftfahrt Elektronik to supply a separate, colour-changing lighting system for the main cabin.

Likewise, a number of alternative seat belt designs have been tested and introduced, using lighter metals to reduce weight for an eco-friendly approach. Coupled with the use of less fabric in the belt itself, a single aircraft can make modest weight savings that, when extrapolated across a fleet, can lead to significant savings on fuel expenditure.