Phoenix-based aerospace manufacturer Honeywell is under an ongoing contract with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to study the usability of various forms of touch technology, such as cockpit displays, that will help to determine what factors would cause pilots to make more input errors or take longer to perform tasks as compared to traditional manually controlled cockpit interfaces.
The Crew Interface Motion Simulator (CIMS) where Honeywell performs touchscreen avionics human factors research. Photo, courtesy of Honeywell.
Honeywell is targeting business aviation and regional air transport aircraft for a new line of touchscreen avionics that it is currently developing, with the FAA-contracted research.
The company has not announced any specific aircraft that will receive touchscreen-enabled flight displays, but according to Jeff Merdich, director of product marketing for Honeywell's commercial avionics division, business jets and regional aircraft are the target market.
As part of its research, Honeywell recreates the turbulent flight deck environment where touchscreen avionics will be deployed with a "six degrees of freedom flight deck simulation platform," according to Merdich. This allows test pilots to interact with touchscreen-enabled avionics displays mounted at forward, outboard and overhead cockpit positions.
"This allows the collection of accurate, repeatable data relating to pilot workload, accuracy and fatigue to ensure that we understand the efficiency of these devices in a flight deck environment," said Merdich. "We also utilize Honeywell’s fleet of flight test aircraft to extend this research to the actual flight environment."
Central to Honeywell's research are human factors engineering principles, which involve studying the interaction of the pilot's mind with proposed avionics systems, rather than focusing on the avionics alone.
"We have a heavy focus on human factors, including the appropriate intended function and functional allocation for touch technology on the flight deck," said Merdich. "Our research, has shown that there are key attributes — technology, location, button size, spacing, menu navigation, etc. — to the implementation of touch that are instrumental toward insuring a satisfying user experience with touch in this unique environment."
Focusing on human factors should help to relieve fears expressed by operators and pilots in reaction to previous reports on touchscreen technology regarding inadvertent touchscreen swipes. To address inadvertent touchscreen interactions, Honeywell's researchers and engineers are evaluating the usability of differing touch technologies, such as digital resistive technology, which requires more pressure to change the function of the interface than would a typical swipe on a touchscreen smartphone or tablet.
So how long until the industry sees the widespread deployment of cockpit touchscreen technology? That depends on the intended function and usability for intended function, according to Merdich.
"With the continued growth of touch in the commercial technology space, we do see a transition to this technology over time," said Merdich. "Intended function and usability for intended function will be a key driver behind adoption of this or other interface modalities."
In July 2014 Honeywell will present the results of its touchscreen research to the FAA for the agency to take into consideration for regulatory guidelines, and the conclusions will also help to guide their future product designs.