It’s getting increasingly rare for aerospace technology to drive other markets. It’s usually the other way around — a technology developed and proven in the commercial, retail market, for example, eventually works its way to aerospace, where it’s ruggedized for flight.
That’s still the way it is, for the most part, in aviation displays, but there have been some recent instances where aerospace technology has flowed the other way, toward markets such as ground vehicles, maritime vessels and even commercial electronics.
Apple’s highly successful iPad, for example, employs stabilization and viewing technology developed by Honeywell Aerospace. Take the back cover off an iPad and you’ll see that some of the hardware is stamped “Honeywell,” according to Chad Cundiff, vice president of crew interface products for Honeywell.
Touchscreen technology is another area where aerospace ingenuity is influencing other markets.
“We’ve been working on our lamination technology for a long time and perfecting that for the avionics market. What we’ve found is that we’re able to hit the price points required for ground vehicles, for luxury marine and other maritime applications, and have had a very successful start in penetrating those markets,” said Rob McKillip, senior director of the Head Down Display Center at Rockwell Collins.
“The market has found that over time they need some of the ruggedness and sunlight readability that we provide to the avionics market,” he added.
Touchscreens have been around for years, but industry observers acknowledge that it is clearly the success of Apple’s touch products such as the iPhone and iPod that has pushed aerospace in that direction. Most carry on, hand-held GPS units for general aviation, such as Honeywell’s AV8OR, use touchscreens to access electronic charts and other functions.
“We see a lot of interest around touchscreens,” said Cundiff. “Part of it is due to Apple give credit where credit is due. Consumers are getting used to the Apple interfaces. Years ago, people didn’t think they needed it and were concerned about smearing. We’re seeing a lot of interest in applying this to aircraft cockpits (for installed systems as well as carry-ons), so we’re doing a lot of work in that area. In coming years you’ll see some products come out in that area.”
So what are the challenges associated with greater penetration of touchscreens in aviation, particularly in the business and commercial segments? Usability is one. Issues that have to be addressed when using touchscreens include the size of touch area, the chance of miss-touching, how to use it during times of turbulence, how to make the important applications easier to access and determining which functions should be done via hard key versus touchscreen.
“Sometimes we try to duplicate certain critical functions on both, and it really comes down to usability,” said Cundiff. “You can’t just say that everything works fine in the lab. You have to think about how it’s used in the real environment.”
Solving the smearing and smudging problem associated with touchscreens is key to the penetration of the technology into business and commercial aviation.
“What you do with a touch device today when it starts to smudge is turn it off and clean it with a cloth,” said Cundiff. “Of course, if it’s a critical piece of display hardware in a cockpit you might not want to turn it off to clean it. So the next question is, what can we do to keep it from smudging in the first place? We’re working that pretty hard, as well. Think about a device that some day doesn’t smudge at all so you don’t run into a cleaning issue.”
There’s still interest among avionics manufacturers in organic LEDs (OLED), which use organic semiconductor material, for displays. Nobody thinks we’ll see a large-scale primary OLED display anytime soon, though some manufacturers are more bullish on the technology than others. Honeywell, for example, is encouraged by some of the market moves they’ve seen in this area, while others like Rockwell Collins and GE Aviation are taking more of a wait-and-see approach.
From Honeywell: “When we look out at the displays business, a large part of that is driven by the commercial side because that’s where the investment has to occur in order to get the production volumes,” said Cundiff. “These display fabrication plants are hugely expensive. One of the developments that we’re excited about is we’re seeing some very large investments in Asia for production of OLED displays.
Cundiff added, “It’s really starting to happen (for televisions and laptop computers). We see some big investments in terms of the fabrication facilities being converted over to OLED displays. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort working on OLED technology, and we see some real positive developments there that give rise to the belief that OLEDs might finally become a reality in aerospace and in the consumer world, as well.”
From Rockwell Collins: “We’re watching OLEDs right now, but we haven’t seen them progress at the rate that we would have thought even a year ago,” said McKillip. “It has slowed down quite a bit, and I think that was a bit of a surprise. It’s been the next technology for a number of years, and last year I was saying we might be starting to get some traction. But what we saw over the past 12 months is that it didn’t get that traction in any of the larger sizes. In fact, it is quite rare and difficult to find anything larger than 4 to 5 inches.
“In the initial reviews of the new Microsoft Zune or Google Nexus One phones, the reviewers loved the colors and contrast of display, but in the next sentence they say ‘don’t even bother to try and use it outside.’ And that is important for our market.... There’s still plenty of impetus in the big commercial markets and it may just take a little longer than we predicted last year. On the other hand, if they become available it is relatively easy for us to go and use them.”
From GE Aviation: “Nobody is clamoring for OLEDs at the moment,” said Andrew Carlisle, GE sales and market leader for avionics in the United Kingdom. “LCD is a proven technology in the commercial world, it is still readily available, and the TV and laptop markets are still heavily dependent on the technology. I don’t think aerospace wants to be on the bleeding edge of technology. It wants to adopt proven commercial technology and take it to aerospace. Until OLEDs have wide and accepted use across the industry I think it is doubtful they will be taken forward to the aerospace industry.”
The trend toward larger display screens for commercial, business and military aircraft hasn’t lost steam in the last year. In fact, a number of new displays that have been under development are now undergoing flight test. One of those is Rockwell Collins’ 15.1-inch display for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which was undergoing shakeout during flight test. The company is offering the same display as part of its Pro Line Fusion integrated avionics suite for the Gulfstream G250, Bombardier Global Express XRS and Global 5000. Pro Line Fusion also has been chosen for the Learjet 85 and Embraer Legacy 450 and 500 business jets and Bombardier C Series and Mitsubishi MRJ regional jets.
A number of display developments were announced at the Farnborough Airshow in July. Israel’s Elbit Systems Ltd., introduced its “CockpitNG” concept, describing a high resolution, centrally located, 22-inch diagonal display with touchscreen interface, designed for fighters, trainers and helicopters. The company plans a family of such displays ranging from 15 to 22 inches.
The wide-area display “presents the pilot only the necessary information in a central place” and closes the gap in training between current trainers and the latest fighters, said Itai Yosef, Elbit Systems manager of operational specifications, Fixed Wing Aircraft Team. “We are saying train as you fight,” he added.
L-3 Display Systems, Alpharetta, Ga., announced that its 20X8 Panoramic Cockpit Display subsystem had flown on Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II BF-4 mission systems flight-test aircraft.
A 10X8 display from GE Aviation is being tested on the AgustaWestland AW159 Lynx Wildcat. The display first flew on the twin-engine helicopter last November, and the aircraft made its public debut at Farnborough. AgustaWestland is building 62 AW159s for the U.K. Royal Navy and British Army.
“There are some very optically challenging and stringent requirements imposed on that display,” said GE’s Carlisle. “The previous Lynx operated with a small, square, 6-inch display that had limited graphics potential. With the new display, the pilot has a much greater viewable area, so clarity of information and situational awareness are significantly improved. It also features a digital video interface over fiber, which is a first at GE, permitting more information to be displayed faster and allowing the display of more video streams from different sources.”
[GE Aviation’s program to retrofit 150 of Southwest Airline’s 737 Classics with 15-inch primary flight displays continues apace. Southwest said it anticipates third quarter 2011 deliveries, with flight tests beginning early next year.]
Thales U.K. at Farnborough reported delivering the first shipset of avionics it is providing for British Royal Air Force CH-47 Chinooks under Project Julius, a $650 million avionics and engine upgrade of the RAF fleet. Working under contract from Boeing, Thales is supplying an integrated glass cockpit based on its TopDeck avionics suite, designed for military and civil helicopters including the Sikorsky S-76D.
The RAF Chinooks will be fitted with four 6X8 multifunction displays, two on either side of an existing central instrument panel. Thales also will offer a stowable tablet computer with touchscreen interface, an electronic flight bag (EFB) application serving as a tactical display.
Astronautics Corporation of America, which manufactures a range of civil and military displays and EFBs, says it is seeing demand for larger displays in both the fixed-wing and rotorcraft markets.
“It does seem to be that everyone is getting into this data-fusion type of thing where they want to have the pilot not having to look at so many different places on the display; he can just look forward and there’s all the information on this one piece of glass,” observed Jim Zentner, Astronautics manager of business development.
The demand for multi-functionality is apparent in the company’s EFB business, specifically in providing NextGen-capable equipment in the cockpit.
Astronautics Class 2 or 3 EFBs are capable of displaying potential runway incursions in real-time via ADS-B in/out inputs, and they also support in-trail procedures and merging and spacing applications. The company has been involved in several NextGen demonstrations, including a demonstration of runway conflict alerting using ADS-B aircraft positions at Philadelphia International Airport, in partnership with ACSS and US Airways ( Avionics, March 2010, page 20).
“We see the drive in NextGen activities to require ADS-B functionality in the aircraft,” said Astronautics’ D. Eyton Zelazo. “There are solutions to that, but some solutions include adding another display to show ADS-B in the cockpit. The EFB, given the cost and time, is a much more cost-effective way to include ADS-B.”
Avionics Magazine’s Product Focus is a monthly feature that examines some of the latest trends in different market segments of the avionics industry. It does not represent a comprehensive survey of all companies and products in these markets.
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