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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Product Focus: Cockpit Switches

Touchscreen cockpit display technologies are gaining momentum, while traditional switch manufacturers develop new multifunction systems

By Ed McKenna

Featuring a range of new multifunction displays, the cockpit real estate on many new and older aircraft has been undergoing major renovations. And the ways pilots are interacting with the avionics is also changing. Sparked by the popularity of the iPad and other tablet computers, the touchscreen revolution is getting underway on many flight decks, and there is at least some talk about the future use of voice recognition.

All of this activity is not signaling the immediate demise of the traditional switches, however. They are still expected to be used to control safety critical operations. In addition, many push-button switch companies are refining their offerings to address changing circumstances while supplying products for an expanding legacy fleet.

In October, Rockwell Collins began flight testing the latest configuration of its Pro Line Fusion cockpit featuring the industry’s first touchscreen primary flight display on Hawker Beechcraft King Air B200GT. Additionally, the company said the system will debut as a retrofit option from Hawker Beechcraft Global Customer Support (GCS) for Pro Line 21-equipped King Airs. Certification is expected by the end of 2013 with entry into service in early 2014.

“All the feedback on the flight and the performance of the system was extremely good, so we believe we are well on track for certification of touchscreen-based flight display system,” said Joel Otto, senior director of marketing commercial systems at Rockwell Collins. After certification, the system will be deployed in the aftermarket.

At the about the same time, the company announced the initial forward fit deployment of this technology on AgustaWestland’s new AW609 tilt rotor aircraft, which is expected to be certified by 2016. The rotorcraft will have basically the “same configuration of Fusion as is on our King Air,” said Otto. The systems also provide physical switches as backups. “Our philosophy is … touch can be the primary means but it cannot be sole means … and I don’t see any change in that philosophy coming any time soon,” he said.

These developments are evidence of the momentum for this technology across platforms. When it comes to the user interface of touch in the cockpit, “I think there is still a lot that we can improve upon, but from an acceptance standpoint … it is nearing maturity,” said Jim Alpiser director of aviation aftermarket sales and marketing at Garmin, a pioneer in the use of touch on its cockpit systems.

The technology initially had its advocates and doubters. For the skeptics, the key question was and, for many, continues to be how it would handle the environmental challenges common to flight. However, over time Garmin has been able to win over “some of those that had been skeptical about its … operational characteristics in turbulent environment” by offering on its GTN 650 and 750 systems “nice large fonts … and touchpoints, and we have got places to stabilize your hand along the bezel when you are in a turbulent environment, so you can ride along with the turbulence,” Alpiser said. The company got an extra boost with the validation of the its GTN 650 and 750 series touchscreen avionics by EASA, which opens it up to an international market.

Garmin recently added new capabilities to its GTN touchscreen avionics product line, including weather radar, voice command and connectivity.

Unlike Rockwell Collins, Garmin uses a touch controller for its primary flight display and the multifunction displays that are located in the pedestal area. Like Rockwell, however, Garmin is eyeing helicopter market for it touchscreen products. “It is an important (market) for us … we are spending a lot of time and energy to make sure that we have more and more products to offer in that world,” said Alpiser. “We are working on a helicopter specific software load for the GTN, (which) we expect that to become available sometime (in 2013).”

Honeywell is also developing touchscreen systems for business and general aviation markets, including a partnership with Aspen Avionics to develop a multi-function touchscreen cockpit display for general aviation customers.

Some of this momentum for touch is being sparked by the commercial electronics and demographic trends along with technology advances. “Handheld devices with touch technology are becoming standard for consumer products, especially with youth these are our future pilots,” said Dave McKay, manager of advanced systems at Esterline CMC Electronics. “From the technology perspective, the reliability and robustness of the technology has vastly improved (which is) required for application in any critical system operation,” said McKay. Then there are “the obvious benefits … in terms of managing the display area effectively, for example, zooming in or out, sharing simultaneous use of large screen displays between pilots, (and) more intuitive gesture use.”

CMC is offering touchscreen capability on its Cockpit 4000 NexGen designed military trainers and PilotView Electronic Flight Bags (EFB) deployed on variety of commercial aircraft. It is also looking at deploying touch control on its SmartDeck Integrated Flight Controls System. “The technology deployed on the demo is resistive, (but) final technology is still under evaluation,” said McKay.

The company “has discussed (its) touchscreen intentions with the Canadian certification authority in general terms, and … (currently expects) to open a program for touchscreen certification in (2013),” said McKay. To gain certification, the touchscreen controls must be fully redundant with traditional hard and soft key functions, he said. “So should the touchscreen fail for any reason, there will be no loss of functionality from the system, and the pilot will simply continue operations using the bezel keys, voice activation, and rotary controllers.”

In fact, the company plans “to provide pilots with options for control methods that will complement each other seamlessly and allow pilots to select their preferred control methods based on the situation, tasks at hand, and personal preferences,” said McKay.

In addition to being more intuitive, especially for those accustomed to using mobile touch devices, the touch technology allows pilots who are “using (it) in the primary field of view” to keep their heads “in closer proximity to out-the-window views” making it easier “for pilots who are transitioning between the instruments and visual flying,” Otto said.

In a new software load for its GTN products last year, Garmin added, among other features, the ability to display digital weather radar, Alpiser said. “We are also optimizing the software to take advantage of some of the ADS-B In technology that will soon be available,” said Alpiser. The Garmin Pilot app can also now display and post charts and sectionals and bring in weather and ADS-B traffic and weather information and use it for preflight, he said.

The company has also added support “in the GTN 750 and its accompanying GMA 35 audio controller for … what we call Telligence Voice Command,” which permits the pilot “to speak to the GTN itself and command it to do different things,” said Alpiser. The pilot can, for example, activate audio panel functions in response to spoken commands, according to Garmin. By pressing a push-to-command button on the yoke and saying “Comm One,” for example, the pilot can select the radio. The use of voice recognition will continue “to expand, but it is going to take a little closer cooperation with the approving agencies” to boost the comfort level with the use of the technology, said Alpiser.

Voice recognition has attracted the interest of many vendors. “We continue to monitor the technology,” said Otto. “It is challenging in the noise environment we are in and still there are challenges with dialects and other things from a spoken standpoint,” he said. “It will get there and when it does I think there will be some good applications.”

With all this momentum for change, is the transition to at least the expanded used of touch technology a fait accompli?

“Clearly pilots must say they want it, but I’m curious how it will be accepted over the long haul,” said Bruce Maxwell, president of Luma Technologies. There are still obstacles its broader use including overcoming the impact of turbulence but also “concerns over pilot distraction with all the gadgetry, and … how are they going to lean forward and manipulate the screens if they’re tightly belted into their seats?” Based in Bellevue, Wash., Luma offers its Lumatech 2000 Series low profile (less than a half-inch deep) sunlight readable hall-effect switch to the LRU and Control Panel OEMs making products ranging from Audio Control and Terrain Awareness Systems all the way to flight critical Mode Control and Autopilot Systems.

“The touch systems are definitely coming in some applications,” but the industry is “still evolving” on what those uses will be, said Steve Edwards, vice president of product development at Aerospace Optics.

The one certainty is that these technologies will mean a decrease in the number of mechanical switches in cockpit. The cutback has already been well underway with the introduction of digital technology and the multifunction display. These displays have existed for some time but now can contain more information “and are producing a reduction in analog switching, said Bryan Bakker, product manager for integrated systems at Esterline Control Systems. Furthermore, touchscreen “puts commands onto that screen that used to be a discreet switch.”

“In the next five years, there will probably be … a mixed mode introduction” of touch along with mechanical switches, “and it will move slowly like we saw with (the introduction of the) digital … signal,” said Bakker. “The information that goes to the touchscreen may not be as critical … so if I am doing things like turning off and on lights or taking care of temperature in the cabin … that can be put on the display as a touchscreen, but if I am transferring fuel or another type of (critical function) I am still going to need some analogue hardwire to interface the device,” added Mark Cochran, Esterline Control Systems’ vice president of product management.

Meanwhile, push button switch providers like Aerospace Optics are refining their products to address the changing circumstances. Responding to the growth of multifunction display, Aerospace Optics developed a “multifunction body assembly on our switches” which has proved quite successful, said Craig Morgan, senior vice president of sales at Aerospace Optics. “We have sold a significant number of what we call the electronic latch, which adds functionality to the traditional push-button switch, and based on that success, we have evolved it (adding) four or five additional features, including a pulse timer “which allows the old, traditional push-button switch to be an edge detector and then … produce an outbound signal.” With these versatile products, “we are now able to provide more capability with less space, weight and power than ever before.”

The company is also targeting new opportunities, such as providing switches for the growing number of night vision cockpits used by civil operators in emergency medical services, police and fire departments and homeland security. “In fact, over half of our business right now is going to night vision compatible products,” said Edwards. Aerospace Optics helped facilitate the use of night vision, which is common place on military aircraft, on civilian platforms by developing a “new color of red that matches the commercial aviation’s (expectations),” Edwards said. The military “red” was more an orange color.

Aerospace Optics and others are seeing a surge in the retrofit market, supplying older, sometimes hard to get products for the growing number of legacy aircraft in the fleet. With a weak economy, “everybody is … updating legacy aircraft, and we see that as a very attractive market niche for some time to come,” said Edwards.

A growing problem within this market is specific product shortages caused by the “original manufacturers that are no longer supporting the line or worse yet may be out of business,” said Luma’s Maxwell. “Combine that with their being incandescent and somewhat fragile, and you have a pretty pricey problem.”

“The opportunity to address these shortages will stay strong in the near term,” (but the number of companies capable of meeting this demand “has been shrinking,” said Morgan. “You can count the companies that can play on this field on one hand … so that is an attractive market for those of us that will remain in it.”

Meanwhile, a mainstay for many companies for several years has been replacing incandescent switches with LED technology. “LED is the standard in the industry now,” and since it is “really a solid state illumination we developed a solid state switch to accommodate that,” said Bakker. Esterline Control Systems introduced its “Opticon” line of low-profile, low weight cockpit solid state switches about three years ago. The retrofit process can be challenging, so operators upgrade only those “systems are used more often than others in the aircraft” such a landing gear panel, said Cochran.

“All of our products are form fit function compatible with each other,” said Edwards. “If you want to switch over from a incandescent to an LED you can do yourself in about 30 seconds with no training; all you have to do is take one cap out put the other in.”

Other industry developments:

Staco Systems, based in Irvine, Calif., in August was selected by Panasonic Avionics to provide custom designed 64-key panel mount keyboards for Panasonic’s eX3 in-flight entertainment and connectivity system. This custom keyboard will be used with the In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) Remote Control Center that will be installed onboard the Airbus A350 series.

This compact USB keyboard has 64 keys. The keys are LED backlit and the illumination levels are controlled by a 5-step dimming control circuit, the company said.

Astronics Luminescent Systems in May was selected by Learjet supply LED cockpit instrument panels for the Learjet 70 and Learjet 75.

Next month: Synthetic Vision Systems

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. Avionics Product Focus Editor Ed McKenna can be contacted at emckenna@accessintel.com.

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