Early aircraft had a few sensors. "Steam gauges" converted air pressures into needle deflections that could be interpreted as altitude and airspeed. A magnetic compass provided a sense of direction. The displays to the pilot were as critical as the measurements.
A modern aircraft has a far more sophisticated suite of sensors and displays, which are embedded into avionics systems. The aircraft may contain inertial navigation systems, global positioning systems, weather radar, autopilots, and aircraft stabilization systems. Redundant sensors are used for reliability. A subset of the information may be transferred to a crash recorder to aid mishap investigations. Modern pilot displays now include computer displays including head-up displays.
Air traffic control radar is distributed instrumentation system. The ground portion transmits an electromagnetic pulse and receives an echo (at least). Aircraft carry transponders that transmit codes on reception of the pulse. The system displays aircraft map location, an identifier and optionally altitude. The map location is based on sensed antenna direction and sensed time delay. The other information is embedded in the transponder transmission.
Avionics (a portmanteau of aviation and electronics) are the electronic systems used on aircraft, artificial satellites, and spacecraft. Avionic systems include communications, navigation, the display and management of multiple systems, and the hundreds of systems that are fitted to aircraft to perform individual functions. These can be as simple as a searchlight for a police helicopter or as complicated as the tactical system for an airborne early warning platform.
The cockpit of an aircraft is a typical location for avionic equipment, including control, monitoring, communication, navigation, weather, and anti-collision systems. The majority of aircraft power their avionics using 14- or 28‑volt DC electrical systems; however, larger, more sophisticated aircraft (such as airliners or military combat aircraft) have AC systems operating at 400 Hz, 115 volts AC. There are several major vendors of flight avionics, including Panasonic Avionics Corporation, Honeywell (which now owns Bendix/King), Universal Avionics Systems Corporation, Rockwell Collins (now Collins Aerospace), Thales Group, GE Aviation Systems, Garmin, Raytheon, Parker Hannifin, UTC Aerospace Systems (now Collins Aerospace), Selex ES (now Leonardo S.p.A.), Shadin Avionics, and Avidyne Corporation.
International standards for avionics equipment are prepared by the Airlines Electronic Engineering Committee (AEEC) and published by ARINC.
Air navigation is the determination of position and direction on or above the surface of the Earth. Avionics can use satellite navigation systems (such as GPS and WAAS), inertial navigation system (INS), ground-based radio navigation systems (such as VOR or LORAN), or any combination thereof. Some navigation systems such as GPS calculate the position automatically and display it to the flight crew on moving map displays. Older ground-based Navigation systems such as VOR or LORAN requires a pilot or navigator to plot the intersection of signals on a paper map to determine an aircraft's location; modern systems calculate the position automatically and display it to the flight crew on moving map displays.
Aircraft have means of automatically controlling flight. Autopilot was first invented by Lawrence Sperry during World War I to fly bomber planes steady enough to hit accurate targets from 25,000 feet. When it was first adopted by the U.S. military, a Honeywell engineer sat in the back seat with bolt cutters to disconnect the autopilot in case of emergency. Nowadays most commercial planes are equipped with aircraft flight control systems in order to reduce pilot error and workload at landing or takeoff.
The first simple commercial auto-pilots were used to control heading and altitude and had limited authority on things like thrust and flight control surfaces. In helicopters, auto-stabilization was used in a similar way. The first systems were electromechanical. The advent of fly by wire and electro-actuated flight surfaces (rather than the traditional hydraulic) has increased safety. As with displays and instruments, critical devices that were electro-mechanical had a finite life. With safety critical systems, the software is very strictly tested.