Straight Out of "Star Trek": Windowless Cockpits Coming to a Plane Near You?

windowless-airplane
windowless-airplane

Bye-bye, cockpits? (Photo: Doug/Flickr)

Traditional airplane cockpits may soon go the way of propellers, ashtrays, and free meals on domestic flights. 

Aircraft manufacturer Airbus has filed for a U.S. Patent for a new, high-tech “windowless cockpit” design that gets rid of the familiar glass windows at the front of the plane.  Instead, the pilot would see out of high-tech video screens complete with 3-D renderings of the outside, laser-formed holograms, and feeds from several on-board cameras.  The viewscreen Sulu uses to pilot the Starship Enterprise could someday be on your plane to Phoenix. 

star-trek-sulu
star-trek-sulu

Sulu doesn’t need a window to pilot the Enterprise. Soon your pilot won’t need one either (GIF: Paramount Pictures)

In its patent application, Airbus lists several potential advantages to a windowless cockpit. For one, it’ll give their pilots a wider field of vision. Plus, getting rid of those front front windows could theoretically allow aircraft designers to put pilots anywhere on the plane. That’s a big plus because airlines and aircraft designers HATE those traditional, front-facing cockpits: they take up up valuable fuselage space that could be used for paying passengers; they ruin the plane’s aerodynamics; and having to punch holes in the fuselage for those pesky windows compromises the plane’s structural integrity. Airbus theorizes their windowless cockpit could allow them to make their planes safer, more aerodynamic, and fuel-efficient.

 

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3-D holograms, rear-projection, and digital imaging may replace windows in future cockpits (Photo: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)

Related: The Airplane of Your Dreams: Inside the New Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner

Hey, we love high tech. And anything that brings commercial airplanes closer to Enterprise-level coolness is fine with us. But this windowless cockpit design does come with some potential drawbacks:

It’s gonna be a hard sell for passengers: Fliers lining up at the boarding gate may get slightly unnerved when they look out and see the plane taking them to Orlando has no front windows  (“Where are the pilots?” “Is that a drone?!?”) Some people already have a tough enough time grasping the physics that allow a 400-ton behemoth to defy gravity for six hours. Asking them to accept that a pilot can fly an airplane without being able to see outside might be asking too much.

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How will the pilots see if all those hi-tech gizmos lose power mid-flight?: Modern-day airplanes have a hard enough time keeping a steady Wi-Fi connection. How do they expect to keep their 3D screens and laser holograms running through the duration of the flight?  No one wants to be coming in for a difficult landing at LaGuardia only to have the image of the runway disappear and replaced by a 404 error message. That would present a whole new definition of screwed.

airplane-without-a-cockpit
airplane-without-a-cockpit

Hi-tech is awesome, but what if the power goes out? (Photo: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)

Don’t pilots like windows?: We know we go stir-crazy in our offices if we don’t get to look out an actual window every now and then; and checking out online live-cams of the outdoors just isn’t the same. How will pilots respond to not being able to see out a real, live window? With modern-day commercial passenger jets getting more automated by the day, pilots are already removed enough from the tactile process of flying. Windowless cockpits might exacerbate the issue.  Would Captain Sully have been able to make his miracle landing on the Hudson if his cockpit was set up like an Xbox game room?

pilot-bottom-of-the-plane
pilot-bottom-of-the-plane

It’s lonely at the bottom. How will pilots cope with not having any windows to gaze at the wild blue yonder? (Photo: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)

So even if this windowless cockpit design wins the approval of the U.S. Patent Office, Airbus may need to do a heavy-duty sales job if they’re going to win the approval of the flying public. But passengers may be more accepting than we think. If we can get used to the no-meals thing, we can get used to anything.

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