I am a student in his last semester going for a B.S. in Computer Science. I would like to eventually transition into the space exploration industry (NASA, SpaceX, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, etc). I know nothing about avionics and i would like to learn more about the subject, specifically the software side. I have found little information online. Please give me reference material (books, websites, etc.) to learn about this area. Your point of view and additional information is strongly welcomed.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not convinced Java gets a huge amount of use in an airline - the JVM introduces too much uncertainty to be used in a Real Time application: but if you're competent enough in C/C++ to get this kind of job, you can do Java in your sleep. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Story
    Commented Dec 4, 2014 at 11:25
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    $\begingroup$ @JonStory: Hard real-time is always C or non-hosted (limited subset of) C++. But electronic flightbag is an application for showing charts, checklists and doing calculations. It has no real-time requirements and normally runs on standard notebook or tablet, though they are getting built in in new planes like A380. So it can be in Java or even HTML+JavaScript. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Dec 4, 2014 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ @JonStory: By the way, if you mention airline, most of IT they do probably is in Java and HTML. Because airlines don't do avionics. They do ticket reservation systems and flight planning applications and the electronic flightbags and none of that needs real-time. By the way at my former employer one team did system for controlling airport lights (approach, runway, taxiway, stopbars etc.) and even that was in Java. Because it was mainly GUI for the tower to switch the lights and that did not need any real-time either. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Dec 4, 2014 at 13:15
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    $\begingroup$ @rbp: "real-time" has very specific meaning completely independent of "fairly quickly". Java is fine for "fairly quick". On the other hand "real-time" systems are often not particularly quick; they just have to be absolutely free of any unpredictable delays (which makes GC out of question; usually even any dynamic allocation at all is). $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Dec 4, 2014 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ thanks, i've been programming hard real-time for 35 years, and I chose my words carefully $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Commented Dec 4, 2014 at 17:45

8 Answers 8


Ok, I was posting this as a comment but was becoming ridiculously long...

I worked for most of my professional life in fields that are somehow related. I can see that there are three areas of study that will help you a lot here.

First: programming languages. Knowing a language used in the industry is a plus. Now I am working in the automotive/transportation industry; I am not working on safety critical material, so we just use standard C/C++. Even at that level a good knowledge of low-level programming and software (how to write a simple driver, how to interact with a device using ioctl, etc..) are very useful.

Before that, I worked on a field related to programming languages and compilers, especially on the simulation and analysis of concurrent code. Among the others, I briefly interacted with people working for Airbus (professors that are in academia, but help to build real software). They still see and use a lot of Ada out there, so.. knowing that is good :) I also know for a fact that Java is also used, together with special tools for verification of the code.

Which bring us to the second: everything related to the verification of software, both from a theoretical and a practical point of view, will help you hugely in this industry. Study and practice with runtime monitors and model checkers, at least. Learn about various static analysis techniques, like abstract interpretation. Take classes about that, if you can at your school.

And third: study and practice with embedded systems and with the (more rare) real-time OSes and how they work (and how you do program them). Get yourself an arduino or a netduino (not a raspberry PI - too high level, too many resources there!) and practice with them. Lear about uboot.

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    $\begingroup$ Verification, test, validation, the formal parts of software engineering are most important. If the code is safety critical - which it will be - you are in an entirely different league, up there with satellites. You need experience in really careful, excruciatingly pedantic requirements engineering. Avionics projects I have worked in were done in big international teams, so you need experience in this too. $\endgroup$
    – RedSonja
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 12:31
  • $\begingroup$ And in your CV you should have plenty of the requirements management and version control tools; Doors, Serena, whatever. Subversion, CVS. It doesn't really matter which, because every company has its own variation, you just have to be used to the idea and willing to submit to the discipline. $\endgroup$
    – RedSonja
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 13:18

I suspect the only answer is "on the job".

Learn both C and C++ and some embedded programming and try applying for any junior positions in companies doing avionics you'll find.

Mobile phones can't really be considered embedded any more, but you should be able to find a course in robotics or cybernetics (industrial controllers) or an internship involving those. An internship doing consumer electronics could help too.

And don't forget the aircraft manufacturers don't do avionics themselves but either buy standard modules from vendors like Garmin or Honeywell or subcontract it to many consulting companies. And those companies often do other kinds of embedded (automotive, industrial, etc.) too.

Notes: I remotely know someone who did avionics and I don't think he specifically aimed for it; he was just good C programmer and applied for a job. I myself did some automotive, again just applied for (junior; it was right after graduation) C/C++ job in a consulting company that was originally mobile and was shifted to automotive as the original project didn't really get going.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for your note: I am working in a related field (automotive/transportation) and just applied for it. I had good C/C++ skills and that was what it took. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 4, 2014 at 16:11

For avionics, the following will be essential just to get your CV considered:-

  • Good skills with C
  • Control theory, particularly state space and beyond
  • Related to control theory, a strong foundation in maths
  • Experience with hard-real-time processing
  • Experience working to coding standards
  • Familiarity with review processes

The following would also be useful:-

  • Experience of Ada, and possibly C++
  • Some knowledge of safety-related procedures (DO-178B, MISRA, etc.)
  • Knowledge of test-driven development
  • Experience of common RTOSes such as VxWorks
  • Experience of low-level programming on microcontrollers

With a BS (not BEng) in Computer Science (not electronic engineering) then you may be at a disadvantage on some of this. You MUST choose your projects to get the right experience you want to take to employers.

Of course you're only at the very start of your working life though. A degree is only the start, and any employer hiring graduates will know that you need training up. A good employer will look more at generally how bright you seem to be and how well they think you can pick up new skills. If you're playing with tech in your free time, this is probably a good thing to bring to interviews too.


I have a friend who works in Avionics software. Including space projects.

He got into it by applying for a job at companies that work in that field or similar, before then he didn't have any special avionics training or experience.

Avionics work tends to make more use of programming languages that are not mainstream. I think there's a lot of embedded C (so general C skills may be useful) but also processor-specific assembly and languages like Ada (perhaps more so for defense avionics).

You are very likely to be targeting a real-time operating system (RTOS) or microcontroller. So knowledge of these may be an advantage. You might need to write device drivers and port them to new platforms (e.g. from one microprocessor to another). You might need to program microcontrollers (e.g. 8051) in assembly or C.

It is likely that you would encounter a much higher stringency in terms of writing and/or using unit-tests, test-harnesses, coverage tools, integration-testing and painstaking formal documentation and review of everything.

  • $\begingroup$ Ada probably has more traction in civilian use than military nowadays, perhaps military contractors still have a knee jerk reaction against the mandate, 20 years late... Airbus and Boeing are big users, as are railway systems and air traffic control. SPARK is gaining traction too. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 12:16

Learning C and C++ has already been suggested, and I would also add the Ada programming language to that list. A lot of avionics software is written in those three programming languages.

While learning C/C++, learning how to code properly according to coding standards for aviation software may be helpful, too.

I recommend reading:

If you would like to play around with actual avionics programming, you may be interested in getting an open source quadrocopter (such as the one from AeroQuad) as a toy and experimenting with its software.

  • $\begingroup$ This. Play around with open source avionics, ground control systems, stabilizers, trackers, that kind of thing. Ardupilot, Mission Planner, UDB/MatrixPilot, etc. $\endgroup$
    – Jasmine
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 18:24

I don't work with avionics, but I have worked with remote sensing in the context of Earth Sciences.

I think these materials could be of some help in addition to what others have suggested, esp. if you happen to be interested in the science aspects (sorry the answer may be somewhat off-topic if you are not).

  • Programming

    In addition to C, Fortran is still used a lot for implementing various algorithms and models. For smaller tasks and visualisation, people often use Python (numpy, scipy, pandas, matplotlib) and R (R is an excellent statistical programming language, something you would use instead of Excel for serious things).

    With regards to C, nobody seems to mention that secure coding is really necessary for such high-stake applications. Seacord, 2013 is a great book for this purpose.

    • Chapman, Stephen J. Fortran 95/2003 for scientists and engineers. McGraw-Hill, 2008.

    • Seacord, Robert. Secure Coding in C and C++ (2nd Edition) (SEI Series in Software Engineering). Addison-Wesley Professional, 2013.

    • Matloff, Norman. Art of R Programming. No Starch Press, 2011.

  • Physics

    Good fundamentals in physics are certainly vital in space exploration.

    A lot of measurements done in space have to do with radiation, so I'm adding a reference to that.

  • Mathematics

    Calculus is probably the most important thing, then linear algebra.

    Many problems in design and physics have to do with statistics and optimization.

  • Unix/Linux

    Unix operating systems are used a lot in applied sciences, embedded systems and supercomputers.

    • Kerrisk, M. The Linux Programming Interface: A Linux and UNIX System Programming Handbook. No Starch Press, 2010.

    • Lucas, MW. Absolute FreeBSD: The Complete Guide to FreeBSD. No Starch Press, 2007.

    • many other books, e.g. ones published by O'Reilly

Some daily reading: phys.org/space-news/ (-;


I highly suggest looking into a software analysis course and learning a proving system such as PVS. I went back to graduate school after 14 years in various software industries, and the software analysis course I took has easily been the most eye opening. It wouldn't have made much sense when I was in school, but after working for many years the material clicked. It was never a subject I felt I would enjoy, and it can be a bit dry, but once you get it, you'll never look at programming quite the same way,


From a little search on the net I have found this book: Developing Safety Critical Software: A practical guide fro Aviation Software - Rierson.


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