While home to a battery of complex avionics, the flight deck has not historically been a place you would expect to find the latest technology. Of course, there are significant safety and regulatory barriers, and operators expect to get as much operational life from their investments without always having to make expensive updates.
However, this is changing – witness the rapid acceptance by aviation industry standards of the iPad and other tablets. These portable systems are the most visible part of a major cockpit technology transformation as new and legacy aircraft integrate higher resolution displays with more powerful processors, touchscreen controls and synthetic vision. At the same time, research is being pursued into other cutting edge capabilities, such as voice and gesture recognition, taking us a long distance from the pushbutton switch, which continues to provide critical man-machine interface.
Some of these technologies may not be broadly accepted for quite some time, if ever, but there is nothing like a recovering market to spur interest in new concepts. In response, the industry is reporting a brightening outlook in forward and retrofit segments. Air transport is “very healthy” while the regional market should pickup over the next few years with “with the emergence of new aircraft,” such as the Embraer E Series and Mitsubishi Regional Jet, says Craig Peterson, director of avionics and flight controls marketing for Rockwell Collins.
In the business aircraft segment, “the market for new light- to mid-size business jets remains soft, including Phenoms and Mustang,” says Bruce Maxwell, president of Luma Technologies. However, “remanufactured aircraft, such as Nextant’s 400XTi and HBS’ 400XPR, continue to see strong and steady growth.” On the other hand, “the higher end, long-range [aircraft] are doing pretty well,” says Andy Drexler, Honeywell’s director of marketing and product management for the cockpit systems group.
Even the military and rotorcraft segments are showing positive signs. “We’re seeing a pretty good increase in the military segments,” says Grady Dees, director of technical sales for Universal Avionics. “The recent issues have had some short term impacts, but we are seeing activity in quite a few military programs, and that may be because rather than new acquisitions, there is more retrofit going on.”
Meanwhile, many of the new platforms are acting as showcases for the newest technologies. The new Cessna Sovereigns and Lear 70/75s come with the latest Garmin G5000 integrated cockpit system, for example. The Sovereign cockpit includes three touch-screen 14-inch high-resolution, LCD-lit displays that can operate as primary flight displays or multifunction displays and Garmin’s Synthetic Vision Technology (SVT).
Just taking touchscreen as an example, key system developers are on track to introduce their own versions of the technology on new and existing platforms. Honeywell’s touchscreen system should be up and flying around 2018 with the Embraer E2 avionics, an update to the company’s Primus Epic integrated avionics suite for E-170/E-190 regional jets, says Drexler. Rockwell Collins is slated to have its new touchscreen technology certified for retrofit in King Air 250s “by the latter part of 2014,” says Peterson.
The retrofit market continues to be a rich source of opportunities to introduce new technologies. For example, Garmin recently upped its aftermarket offerings, launching the G5000 avionics modernization program on Beechjet 400A/Hawker 400XP. The company selected Beech 400A because it is “a great overall airplane,” and there are a lot of them in field using obsolescent equipment, including first generation Electronic Flight Instrument Systems (EFIS), says Bill Stone, avionics products manager at Garmin.
New, higher resolution displays can address “obsolescence issues, and then drive the airplanes to a [higher] level of capability … in communication, navigation … or surveillance,” says Mike Glover, director, Atlanta region commercial air transport and business/general aviation at Innovative Solutions and Support (IS&S). The goal is to not just update the technology but “at the same time either align it with or leapfrog what is coming off the production line,” Glover adds.
To accomplish this, operators are generally opting for larger displays and adding more functionality, such as datalink messaging, says Glover. While the size of the displays depends on the available real estate, IS&S displays “have some multifunction display capabilities … we are adding EFB type applications to that forward field of view without having to add an additional display infrastructure.
“In some of the legacy airplanes, there is no room to add additional displays in the forward area,” says Glover. This is exactly the case with Delta Air Lines’ MD-88 and 90s cockpits the company is upgrading, he says.
Along with size, operators are getting a significant boost in resolution. “Not too many years ago a VGA display with 640x480 resolution for an MFD was pretty darn good resolution,” says Stone. Today, for example, the 14-inch WXGA displays on the Sovereign are 1280x800. Similarly, the industry is tapping commercial trends in lighting providing momentum for “the ongoing shift from CLT to LCD to LED backlighting,” which is yielding “lower weight, lower power use and higher reliability,” says Peterson. This shift also allows for the use of higher processing power that helps provide pilots with better renderings of the outside world, depicting obstacles and environmental hazards.
The industry is already looking ahead to the potential of Organic LEDS (OLEDs), “which are much lighter and … give a lot better depiction on a curved surface,” says Drexler. Right now, the technology is only used in “cell phone and giant TV sizes; when [lighting] starts moving to a size that aligns itself with flight deck avionics, we will definitely be looking at it,” says Drexler. He adds, “that is going to be coming into the cockpit by the end of the decade.”
While filling regulatory needs and offering tangible benefits, many of the newer technologies still pose challenges for the industry, beginning with a lack of a standard approach. “My tech guys tell me there are [about] 12 different touch technologies out there, and each has its own flaws,” says Drexler. “Some don’t work well with gloves, some have an issue with inadvertent touch, some have a lot of smudging, and for some the feel isn’t right.”
Because of such issues, touch is not signaling the end of the use of traditional switches. It has “reduced the need for routine advisory and data entry lighted pushbutton switches, but opportunities continue to increase for safety critical applications, which demand tactile orientation and tactile response as well as heightened readability in all ambient lighting conditions,” says Craig Morgan, Aerospace Optics, senior vice president, sales.
“Ruggedized environmental tolerance typically favors traditional lighted pushbuttons as well, and they are mechanically separate from the touch screens, assuring critical pilot interface remains possible should the integrated touch screen fail,” says Morgan.
In addition, switches are continuing to evolve. Aerospace Optics “now offers five multifunction LOGIC switches … with more on the way,” says Morgan. This trend is a very promising response that results in “going away from fixed designs and taking advantage of the new multifunction flexibility that, unlike changing software or redesigning a PCB, can be quickly and economically adapted in the final phases of a modification,” says Morgan.
Meanwhile, Luma Techologies is taking advantage of Nextant’s success in the remanufacturing business and the growing interest in King Air aircraft. “Nextant has done so well with it that they’ve just announced adding a King Air variant to their line-up that will get the same treatment,” says Maxwell. Meanwhile, “sales of our Lumatech LED Annunciator suite for the King Air family continue to grow as more and more owners are opting to upgrade to Garmin’s increasingly popular G1000 avionics suite,” he says. Some owners “are installing it stand-alone just to eliminate the hassles of burned out lamps and fragile/ageing cap assemblies … and market acceptance has grown to the point where Luma has launched new certification programs for two other popular aircraft models.”