CNS, Profiles

The Double-Edged Sword of Automation With Applied Avionics’ Steve Edwards

By Nick Zazulia | April 6, 2018

Steve Edwards

Steve Edwards, Applied Avionics’ VP of product development, has done a lot of things in engineering. He jokes that he has “a lot of blood on [his] hands.”

He worked on surveillance radar at Texas Instruments. He did primary flight displays on the V-22 Osprey for Elbit Systems. (The metal strut for the seat is apparently mid-back when you’re under a V-22’s dash — years later, it still gives him pain.)

When the military avionics industry was going downhill in the 1990s, he drew on his automotive contacts as a Michigan boy and got a job doing body electronics for Nissan. Ever leave your car door ajar in the garage? Edwards is the reason the overhead light turns off after a while instead of you coming back to a dead battery the next day.

After bouncing around, developing semiconductors for LEDs, earning an MBA at TCU and finding out that yes, you can lock someone in a car, Edwards settled in at what is now Applied Avionics. The former cockpit switch and lighting company has branched out and rebranded since he joined to provide products like its popular NEXSYS ARINC 429 signal converter.

Edwards spoke with Avionics about what he does at Applied Avionics, what he sees for the future and the delicate balance demanded by automation.

What is a typical day for you as the head of product development?

Is there such thing as a typical day? Most of what we're doing for a typical day is, we get a couple of products in active development. A typical day is a status review and bringing a typical product forward — whether that's working on what the correct test plans need to be, updating schematics, reviewing, active testing. One thing we have in house here is a full test lab. We don't have to go to an outside lab; we can do virtually every test, both military and commercial, both environmental and electrical and (electromagnetic compatibility).

What is something particularly fun or exciting that you’ve worked on in the various engineering you’ve done?

The experience of just coming up with the brand-new ideas, of doing things that nobody's ever done before. We're taking the ability to create a whole suite of mix-and-match components that can go into the switch just like Legos.

The ability to create the ARINC interface in a switch. The whole world's going computers and the avionics are going — having a switch that actually can interface directly with the computer and the ability to say, “Hey we can do that, nobody else has ever done that before, we did it. We've got it, we've got a patent issued for it.”

I enjoy that one day I might be at the executive board meeting, the next day I could be working at a bench trying to figure out why things aren't working.

One in-demand product that you are making available is the ARINC 429 converter that fits in the standard annunciator. What were some of the challenges you faced in ensuring that that functionality is featured on all the components?

I had direct, hands-on involvement basically all the way from the concept and development of what was to working with the team. That product was a challenge from multiple aspects.

One is we had to fit it inside a switch. So, defining what technology, how do we get enough circuit board space — you know we got an origami flex in there. A flexible circuit is the only way you can make it fit; I mean the whole thing has to fold up into smaller than a three-quarter-inch cube. So, we had the mechanical challenges: How do you get that to also survive a high-G shock? You’ve got both the fixed-wing and the rotor-wing environments. With rotory-wing, you've got the high vibe, so you have to be able to survive a huge mechanical stress over the life of it as well as getting it to survive in an EMC environment in a very small package.

What are you working on right now?

Two things. We’re expanding the capability of our ARINC unit that's in the switch. We'll add additional outputs rather than just one. We'll also be adding some decoding capability. There are a number of applications out there that we are looking at meeting. There's need right now to actually pull three bits off of the ARINC databus and indicate which navigation mode you're in; that’s part of the mandate.

Considering how much automation there is on recently developed aircraft, where is that headed? Looking at the future of both commercial and military avionics, what do you see coming down the pipe?

There’s going to be more integration. Now the computers are controlling everything and have a finger in everything. The capability of computers is going to continue to expand. Quite frankly, that's a mixed blessing. Meaning, go try to work on your own car nowadays. You know, 30 years ago, you could; now, you can't.

The aviation industry has the same issue. If what you're looking for happens to be something already available on the computer, no problem. If it isn't, how do you add another featured function? Maybe at the next block point, it'll get rolled into the computer. What do you do between now and then? You've got 30 aircraft flying in the fleet, and they need a feature.

That's kind of what we're actually providing in this: Rather than have to change the MFD to give it your feature and function, we've still got the indicators. Are indicators being rolled into the MFDs? Yes. But then you're going to add another feature. They're going to expand again back out on to the aircraft and, ultimately, some of those features are going to get rolled back into the computer. Basically, both are still needed.

There's a good chance your landing gear may never end up being in the computer. You lose your computer, well how do you put your landing gear down? The ignition for the engine probably will never be on the MFD. Any of that goes down and the engine goes off because that's what's controlling the engine? So, there's a lot of safety production type stuff that will still be on that you still need an identified, very safe controlled deterministic solution.

What do you do in your free time? Hobbies?

I spend a lot of time with the Boy Scouts. I’m an Eagle Scout. Both my boys are now Eagle Scouts, and my daughter’s got her top gold award for Girl Scouts. I was assistant Scoutmaster for multiple high adventures.

I enjoy going out camping. We’ve got a hundred acres on a river here in Texas, and we’ll go camp under the pecan trees multiple times a year. I do a lot of work with church and bible studies.


Being an engineer, do you find that that leaks over into your home life? Doing that kind of thing around the house too?

Oh, yes. Whether it’s redoing the lighting, trying to figure out how to get the house tied into the electronics as well as things like we’re in the process of building an outdoor kitchen in our house. It's all yours. I’ll do the hands-on engineering there.

I also supported my son when he was in high school on the robotics team, coaching him.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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