Design PCBs to Meet FAA Aircraft Certification Standards

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: March 19, 2021

Avionics and aerospace engineers face a strictly regulated landscape when designing civil aircraft and the electronic systems that support them. You don’t have to be a professional aviation engineer to know that aircraft are extremely complicated mechanical and electrical systems. From withstanding extreme environments to rugged electrical and mechanical requirements, the Federal Aviation Administration defines standards for every aspect of aircraft design.

Embedded systems in aircraft and electrical connectors are two areas where designers can take major steps to ensure reliability. Electronics designers need the best layout, sourcing, verification, and documentation tools to help ensure they will receive certification for airworthiness. Designing to these standards, sourcing compliant components for your system, planning for production, and documenting the totality of your circuit boards takes the complete set of design tools you’ll find in Altium Designer.

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The only PCB design application that unifies design, documentation, and sourcing tasks in a unified design environment.

Every PCB needs to meet critical quality and performance requirements, especially for products in highly regulated industries. Components must also meet important quality and reliability standards. If you’re designing avionics systems for civilian aircraft, then you’ll need to become intimately familiar with FAA standards on avionics systems.

The FAA aircraft certification standards define all aspects of mechanical, electronic, and operator requirements on civilian aircraft. Designing to these standards and IPC reliability standards takes the right set of design and manufacturing preparation tools. If you can address these aspects of your design early, you can ensure your new product will be manufacturable and reliable once deployed in a new aircraft.

Electronics are getting more complex at breakneck speeds, but avionics designers can keep up with new technology and create advanced designs for new aircraft. With the complete set of design features in Altium Designer, you can create your embedded systems and source reliable components for aircraft in a single program. Here’s how Altium Designer helps you stay productive and comply with FAA aircraft certification standards.

High speed design and sourcing in Altium Designer

Access all the features you need to design advanced PCB design and layout in Altium Designer.

FAA Certification Standards for Aerospace PCBs

IPC standards should always be looming at the forefront of your design strategy. However, embedded systems for aircraft and other aerospace systems may need to be designed to meet FAA guidelines or MIL standards. In order to receive qualification, the FAA needs assurances your systems can withstand potential power fluctuations, operate within steady-state tolerances, and manage thermal demands. If your new design can pass a battery of tests, the aircraft it’s deployed in can receive an airworthiness certificate.

Some of the important industry standards on your next product will need to comply with include:

  • Power requirements defined in the CBEMA curve
  • AS9001 quality tracking requirements
  • IPC Class 3 or 3A design and manufacturing requirements
  • EMC requirements specified by FCC
  • CISPR standards specified by IEC
  • MIL standards for circuit boards in mission critical military aircraft
  • Other standards, including ISO, IPC, SAE, and RTCA DO

These systems must be designed to provide the highest performance in extreme environments. Whether you’re designing civil aircraft, ultralight aircraft, or light-sport aircraft, the FAA Aircraft Certification Service will rigorously evaluate your designs within these systems to ensure airworthiness. This includes evaluation of any embedded systems in new aircraft.

Designing Embedded Systems in Aircraft to Comply with Industry Standards

As electronics in aircraft are usually part of larger embedded systems, you’ll need to consider your board’s place within a power system, control system, communications system, or electromechanical system. Managing the huge range of design rules and standards on your embedded circuit board designs and mission critical systems takes adaptable design software for advanced PCBs.

Each of these systems carries its own performance and design standards, and you need to encode these standards as design rules within your PCB design software. Working with rules-driven design software allows you to incorporate circuit board layout requirements directly into your design rules. The right design software can help engineers keep track of their circuit board layouts, components, and sourcing, ensuring their boards meet reliability and quality standards.

Screenshot of the Signals extension in Altium Designer

High speed layout near a BGA for embedded devices in Altium Designer.

Ensure Reliability with the Right Connectors

Any IPC Class 3/3A system needs to be designed to high mechanical and electrical reliability, especially in rugged environments. Sourcing unique components can be difficult, including radio frequency modules, rugged connectors, and specialty aircraft wiring. Component sourcing and data management are two critical processes for the aviation and aerospace industry, but preparing complete documentation helps you prove compliance in an instant.

When you need to quickly place connectors in your circuit board, your aircraft connectors should be available inside your design software. These components need to be rated to industry standards to ensure reliability. You need instant access to datasheets, PCB footprints, and much more for your next circuit board layout.

Find the Aircraft Connectors You Need in Altium Designer

You can easily narrow down to the components you need when you have access to supply chain data from verified distributors. You’ll have greater control over your design when you have visibility into lead times, costs, and lifecycles from compliant distributors. Working with the right design software also allows you to instantly import component models for your aircraft electrical connectors and cable assemblies for use in your circuit board layout.

When these sourcing features interface directly with your design tools, you can import your component models directly into your layout and your PCB assembly documentation. Altium Designer provides these functions through the Manufacturer Part Search Panel, allowing you to find and import the components you need, including rugged aircraft connectors.

Native 3D design tools for placing aircraft electrical connectors in Altium Designer

3D view of components and connectors in Altium Designer.

The Right Design Tools for Embedded Systems in Aircraft

Embedded systems are vital in aircraft, and they will continue to become more vital in other industries like automotive and industrial automation. To keep up with the pace of technology and source reliable components, designers need a complete circuit board design solution. This means working with design software that includes all the design features you need in a unified, rules-driven design interface. Everything from thermal pad design to ground planes needs to be carefully designed and checked to ensure reliability.

The best design software for real-time embedded systems development helps you stay compliant with industry standards and create highly accurate layouts. Aircraft safety and performance in mission-critical systems hinges on these systems being designed to meet or exceed every electronics design standard. When you can define industry standards as design rules for your PCB layout, you have the highest chance of ensuring reliability and qualification.

Altium Designer: A Single Program for All Your Designs

Working within stringent design standards and sourcing regulations on mission critical systems takes real integration in your design software. With Altium Designer, your circuit board layout editor, schematic editor, mechanical design features, documentation, verification, and sourcing features exist in a single program. The power of Altium Designer lies in its rules-driven design engine, ensuring you can stay compliant and build reliable PCBs in a single software application.

When you’re ready to have your embedded devices prepared for PCB manufacturing, you can instantly generate testing documentation, fabrication drawings, and bills of materials for your circuit board. Every design feature in Altium Designer is created to share your design data, helping you stay productive in all aerospace PCB design tasks.

Native 3D design tools for placing aircraft electrical connectors in Altium Designer

Create high-quality circuit board layouts for embedded devices in Altium Designer

Altium Designer has set a new standard for the PCB design software industry. With everything you need integrated into a single program, you’ll have full control over your embedded design and sourcing strategy while working in a rules-driven design environment. Make the switch to Altium Designer today.

About Author

About Author

Zachariah Peterson has an extensive technical background in academia and industry. He currently provides research, design, and marketing services to companies in the electronics industry. Prior to working in the PCB industry, he taught at Portland State University and conducted research on random laser theory, materials, and stability. His background in scientific research spans topics in nanoparticle lasers, electronic and optoelectronic semiconductor devices, environmental sensors, and stochastics. His work has been published in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and he has written 1000+ technical blogs on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, and the American Physical Society, and he currently serves on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee.

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