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Friday, February 1, 2013

Product Focus: Synthetic Vision Systems

Having proven their worth in business aviation to improve situational awareness, SVS systems are making in-roads in the general aviation and rotorcraft markets

By Ed McKenna

The four Honeywell displays include, from left to right, prototype combined enhanced vision system (EVS)/SVS, traditional primary flight display, navigation display and certified synthetic vision display on approach into Morristown, N.J.

As the technology gains greater acceptance in the business jet market, synthetic vision system (SVS) vendors are refining their offerings and looking to expand their user base. General aviation and rotorcraft markets are prime targets since the technology’s key attribute of improving the pilot’s situational awareness is on its own a selling point. Meanwhile, companies are still pressing efforts to gain operational credit that is significant enough to attract air transport customers and, eventually, build a system that combines synthetic and sensor data.

The aviation industry sees synthetic vision no longer as “a novelty” but more as “something that is expected,” said Grady Dees, director of technical sales at Tucson, Ariz.-based Universal Avionics Systems, which rolled out the first certified synthetic vision product for Part 25 aircraft about six years ago. This expectation is especially true of the new corporate jets, but the higher profile of the technology in forward fit is boosting greater interest in it in the retrofit avionics market as well, he said.

In fact, companies are reporting that potential customers are increasingly specifically requesting synthetic vision. “The technology is very well received in the market; we have fielded thousands of systems with synthetic vision technology,” said Bill Stone, avionics products manager at Garmin. The company offers its Synthetic Vision Technology (SVT) on it G1000 cockpit and new G5000 and it is a standard feature on its retrofit G600 product. “It really does enhance situational awareness and gives (the pilot) a lot more confidence … (than) reading a couple of needles on a HSI.” 

Garmin’s Synthetic Vision Technology is integrated on the primary flight display (PFD) of the G1000 avionics suite.
“Our CEO likes to call it the sizzle on the steak … it is a piece that puts you ahead of the competition when you have it,” said Dees.

The competition is a formidable lineup including Rockwell Collins, Honeywell and Cobham. Along with Universal Avionics and Garmin, all are reporting a boost in interest in their synthetic vision offerings. “It has been pervasively and enthusiastically embraced in the business jet market, and I sense (its appeal) is starting to move ‘up market’ … into regional systems… and even some air transport platforms,” said Craig Peterson, director, avionics and flight controls marketing for Rockwell Collins.

The technology is often getting into the cockpits of new business aircraft via avionics suites from companies, such as Rockwell Collins, Honeywell and Garmin. The growing use of these integrated cockpits may in fact be providing the foundation for its eventual use on new regional transport aircraft, such as Embraer CSeries regional jets, that have adopted the same avionics architecture “that is pervasive throughout corporate jet marketplace,” said Peterson.

Along with the forward fit, there is also appeal in the aftermarket. But a retrofit for older aircraft can be a more complicated and costly proposition. The systems require mass storage capability and a significant amount of bandwidth and processing power, and the installations can be “rather invasive in an aftermarket application,” said Peterson. 

Rockwell Collins’ Head-Up Guidance System (HGS) depicts synthetic vision technology of a head-up display.
Still there is a market for the retrofit that Rockwell Collins and other companies are addressing. Garmin for example has reported solid sales of its G500 and G600 retrofit cockpit systems, the latter with synthetic vision technology as a standard feature. After a good year in 2011, sales of the retrofit cockpit displays have “remained pretty strong (and) we still see the overwhelming majority of flight displays (customers) opt to have synthetic vision,” said Jim Alpiser, director of aviation aftermarket sales for Garmin.

“We continue to see strong growth in the retrofit special-mission market,” said Gordon Pratt, director of business development at Cobham Commercial Systems, based in Mineral Wells, Texas. With operators facing tight budgets, “new aircraft are too expensive, so (they) are tending to modernize existing assets, particularly avionics.”

As far as the different market segments are concerned, “we are not seeing a real change in the base of who buys this stuff … it is (still) primarily the corporate business jet (segment),” said Dees. However, Dees did call attention to a niche developing among owner operators of small general aviation aircraft, such as the Pilatus PC-12 NG; it is a niche that is gaining the attention from the different technology providers.

A boost in situational awareness all by itself provides value to the owner operators who flying Part 23 or Part 23 Class 4 aircraft, said Peterson. These are operators who “are worried … (about pilot) workload and situational awareness (issues).”

Last year, Honeywell made synthetic vision available to operators of the Pilatus PC-12 NG as an option on its Primus Apex flight deck, which is designed for single-engine turboprops through light jets. Operators of the PC-12 can get essentially the same SmartView synthetic vision that is available on Honeywell’s Primus Epic avionics found in much larger aircraft, such as the Gulfstream G650 and Dassault Falcon 900EX.

“We try to provide it in different portions of the market, and it is really the same experience,” said Larisa Parks, vice president of marketing and product management at Honeywell. With Primus Apex, the company is leveraging the same architecture it designed for it Primus Epic, and “because they have that level of commonality, we can deliver synthetic vision to both of those platforms as a software upgrade,” Parks said. Primus Apex is also on Viking Aircraft Twin Otter 400 and China’s Y-12F, but only PC-12 includes the option of the synthetic vision now.

SVS for Helicopters

The rotorcraft market has also shown “pretty significant interest (in synthetic vision),” said Dees, noting Universal had recently completed one display with synthetic vision installation for a foreign government application in rotorcraft and was working other rotorcraft programs.

According to synthetic vision providers, the systems deployed on the helicopters are essentially the same as on fixed-wing platforms allowing for refinements to account for vibration and other environmental issues associated with special missions that the platforms may be used for, such as oil or ocean exploration, said Peterson. 

Universal Avionics’ EFI-890R flat-panel integrated displays featuring the Vision-1 synthetic vision system (SVS).
There are some obvious operational differences. Since they fly so close to the ground, “they need to have a more precise awareness of the terrain, particularly obstacles that they are flying around,” said Sarah Barber, principle systems engineer, advanced concepts for Rockwell Collins. For this reason, there “is a slightly different utilization of the processing capability within synthetic vision system” and there tends to be more focus on a higher resolution terrain database, so that the terrain can be more accurately mapped, said Barber.

“Because of the processing limitations, you won’t be drawing out that far... so there is a trade-off between the resolution of the image and the virtual distance that will (be) drawn (in) that image,” said Barber.

The types of missions operated by rotorcraft using, for example, low nap of earth flying, can actually create “a broader value proposition than the mission profiles that you see in fixed-wing corporate or transport platforms,” said Brian Jacobowitz, senior engineering manager, synthetic vision systems for Rockwell Collins.

Meanwhile, Cobham has specialized in serving the military and special-mission market, supplying synthetic vision to both fixed-wing and rotorcraft. “The intuitive nature of SV provides tremendous safety benefits in these dynamic, low-altitude, high-workload operational environments,” said Pratt.

The critical value of the technology is easily illustrated when seen in these more exceptional operating circumstances. For example, “in July 2007, a flight of three Part 135 air tour Twin Otters encountered reduced visibility in the Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan, Alaska,” said Pratt. “According to the NTSB accident report, the weather deteriorated rapidly while they were flying amid rugged fjord terrain; (however) the two aircraft with SV successfully navigated the fjords to safety,” he said. Unfortunately, “the third aircraft, equipped with a color moving map, but no SV impacted terrain at 2,500 ft. MSL, killing all occupants.”

“Our success has been in capability-driven markets rather than cost-driven markets, so our work tends to be in larger aircraft, both fixed-wing and helicopter,” said Pratt. “I believe ours is the only SV to be approved in all four classes of aircraft, Part 23, 25, 27 and 29.”

Beyond these different market segments, companies are continuing the push to gain a foothold in air transport. Central to this effort is offering operators a tangible cost benefit through an operational credit for using the systems. Reducing the decision height for instrument landings from 200 to 150 or 100 feet would provide that benefit by offering, for example, the fuel savings gained from reducing the number go-arounds and diversions, said Parks.

The issue is complicated and continues to be considered at the RTCA Special Committee 213, jointly with Eurocae WG-79, which has been tasked by FAA with developing minimum aviation system performance standards (MASPS) for synthetic vision and the range of Enhanced Flight Vision Systems (EFVS), Enhanced Vision Systems (EVS) and Combined Vision Systems (CVS).

The group had in 2011 issued a MASPS, and in June 2012, “we published DO-341 for Enhanced Flight Vision Systems enabling an approach landing down to 300 feet RVR (runway visual range), and we have just started working on DO-315C, in which we intend to look at the SVS credit on LPV approaches,” said Barber. “With regard to getting extra credit on ILS, we at Rockwell Collins certainly have (technology) that is capable of achieving that operation to 150 feet,” Barber said. The company is now discussing with FAA doing a proof of concept.

Rockwell Collins’ situation is unique since it alone among SVS providers to have certified the use of synthetic vision on the head-up display (HUD) on the new Global Express platform, essentially fulfilling the requirements of FAA Order 8400.13D, which governs the operation of getting extra credit for ILS. “It has no restrictions and can be used even down to CAT 11,” Barber said. The key issue is that operators required to have a CAT11 crew and CAT 11 able aircraft to use synthetic vision to get down to 150 feet. Rockwell is working with FAA to establish new guidelines eliminating the need for those requirements. “We believe that this can be done basically with CAT 1 training and maintenance with the additional training for low visibility operations,” freeing the operator from applying “those onerous CAT 11 type programs,” Barber said.

Meanwhile, Honeywell said it working with FAA on the certification of the SmartView for lower landing minimums, said Parks. The company is eying an evolutionary process with an initial reduction from current 200 to 15O feet “because I do think that if we can get down to the 150 feet decision height, we can deliver quite a bit of benefit to operators, especially at CAT 1 airports.” The company, like the others, is providing SVS heads down and sees its Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS) database at the heart of it SmartView system as a key advantage.

Despite all of the heated action, there are those who do not see a big role for SV in air transport. “SV solves problems not faced by commercial air transport operators,” said Pratt. “They tend to fly above the weather on regular routes and they don’t have a CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) problem, (and) to change display systems, they have to retrain pilots and check pilots, change simulators, training materials, and procedures, and equip an entire fleet for consistency,” he said. “This is cost-prohibitive when they don’t have a problem that can be solved by SV.”

Instead of a solely synthetic vision system, “I have maintained that EV/SV fusion is the holy grail,” said Pratt. This system combining sensor data on an enhanced vision system and synthetic information is on the to-do list of many of the synthetic vision providers. Honeywell has been working its combined system for years.

“It is on our road map, so it is certainly part of the pipeline,” said Parks. “We are really excited about it although right now … we are focused on bringing the synthetic vision lower landing minimums … down to the 150 feet height … because we think there are a lot of operators that will immediately benefit,” said Parks. In the meantime, “we are planning for our next release to have some new place symbology; we have got the range markers that actually provide to the pilots a real subtle view of where things are and the distance to certain things like mountains, lakes or runways,” said Parks.

Rockwell is also “looking at the fusing of synthetic vision with the real time sensors,” said Barber. With the certified system on the Global Express, the pilot today can “select either synthetic … or enhanced (vision), but we are working on an intelligent fusing of those two images to provide the pilot with the best possible image depending on their location relative to the runway end.” The company is also working on “what we call the surface guidance system on the HUD,” said Barber. “Right now we have an application called the airport surface moving map which is a database driven application” and very detailed, and the plan is to take that technology up to HUD giving the pilot an egocentric synthetic vision like presentation all of that information overlaid on the view of the outside world, “so whether you are taxiing around on sunny day or in 500 feet visibility you can have that taxiway laid out for you exactly where you need to go,” said Barber.

Next month: Antennas

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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