Business & GA, Embedded Avionics

Product Focus: Cockpit Displays

By By Ed McKenna | October 1, 2012
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In these lean economic times, operators of all stripes are increasingly looking for ways to boost the capability and service life of their aircraft. Prominent among potential upgrades are new, more capable flight displays.

Often larger than the original equipment, new displays can deliver to pilots of legacy platforms greater situational awareness, more efficient lighting as well as the foundation for the technologies needed for future NextGen operations.

Across the board, “operators want to get more functionality out of their (existing) avionics suite,” said Mike Glover, director, Atlanta region, commercial air transport and business/general aviation at Innovative Solutions and Support (IS&S). Operators are looking “to replace legacy … components that can’t take their aircraft to the NextGen and SESAR world” and add capabilities, such as synthetic vision and video, or “just get a better presentation of primary function instrumentation.”

As they explore their options, “folks are being very thoughtful about what they spend (on),” said Larisa Parks, vice president of marketing and product management at Honeywell. “If they can invest modestly to extend the life of the aircraft … or upgrade the functionality, then they are going to do that, and we are seeing the results in our retrofit sales.”

The growth is being reported across market segments. “We see a solid activity level in both commercial and military retrofit markets for cockpit displays and electronic flight bags in particular,” said Jean-Marie Bégis, director of electronic flight bags at Ottawa-based Esterline CMC Electronics.

Although it may be gaining momentum from the economic slump, this is not a new trend, and it is boosting the bottom lines of vendors, including IS&S, Honeywell, Rockwell Collins, Garmin and Universal Avionics, which offer display upgrades separately or as part of their cockpit suites.

“It is good consistent business for us,” said Jim Alpiser, director of aviation aftermarket sales for Garmin. Since introducing its first glass cockpits in 2004, including the “more retrofitable” G500 and 600 and G500H for helicopters, “we have seen a huge influx of demand to … switch over to glass in the cockpit … (and) we are producing hundreds of these retrofits a year if not close to thousands.”

The company delivers upgrades to a variety of general aviation and business aircraft. This year, it received a FAA supplemental type certification (STC) to deploy its G1000 avionics suite in the Beechcraft King Air 300 and 350s. “We already have dozens of installations underway or completed,” said Bill Stone, Garmin’s avionics products manager.

There have been other recent STCs of note, such as that received by IS&S to deploy its Flat Panel Display System (FPDS) on the Classic Boeing 737, including the 300/-400/-500 series aircraft. The FPDS includes a common 10.4-inch LCD display architecture that IS&S has developed, certified and already installed on more than 160 757 and 767 aircraft, according to the company.

Meanwhile, Rockwell Collins is working with Boeing on an upgrade program for cockpits on the aircraft maker’s legacy 757-767s that could involve up to 1,600 of these aircraft that are still in operation. The plan calls for replacing the platforms’ six CRT displays with three 15.1-inch LCDs — each providing two independently controlled display windows. The program includes as an option Rockwell Collins’ HGS-6700 head-up guidance system, which includes synthetic vision system (SVS). The feature will be offered as an option on head-down displays, as well.

“The display units are identical to those utilized on the 787,” and will deliver “tangible weight, maintenance, repair and sparing advantages of the LCD technology vs. the legacy CRT technology,” said Craig Peterson, director of Avionics and Flight Controls Marketing for Rockwell Collins. “From a functional perspective, the LCD (display’s) size, resolution and bandwidth afford the user with the ability to display…applications that will be necessary for operations in next generation airspace,” including automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) traffic applications; high resolution, terrain rich maps; airport surface and taxi maps; approach charts; and uplink graphical weather depictions.

Retrofits do not come without challenges including downtime and certification costs. “You can have the best program in the world, but if it takes a week to do the installation, it is not going to pass (many customers’) financial hurdles,” Glover said. In fact, IS&S said it can remove and replace the old displays on Boeing 737s in “less than 24 hours,” according to company president Shahram Askarpour.

Technology certification can require significant investment, Stone said. At Garmin, “we are making those investments where we can, (and) in the fixed wing world we are doing STCs with approved model list (that) covers a very large number of aircraft and defrays cost for the operators.” However, for helicopters and the larger transport aircraft, “we are not able to do such a broad STC,” he said. Those platforms have to be certified by make and model, adding “a lot of costs” and a key barrier to acquisition.

“Each aircraft platform has its own constraints (size, equipment configurations), and installations tend to be more complex than operators expect which drives prices,” added Bégis. “Operators (will) demand high value applications which in turn require more sophisticated and certified retrofit installations.”

Rockwell Collins said it is seeking to limit downtime by minimizing “the wiring complexity” and certification holdups “through careful partnering with the OEMs, (such as Boeing) to utilize their expertise in determining wire routings, interconnects and similar technical issues,” said Peterson.

“We can actually get (the technology) into that cockpit in a relatively short term of time,” said Parks. Honeywell offers display upgrades for business jets via its Primus Elite flight deck and Control Display System/Retrofit offerings. The company is now concentrating on delivering functionality in “the least disruptive way … with some combination of hardware and software upgrades,” she said, adding the company was looking at ways to provide the company’s SmartView synthetic vision offerings through a software-only upgrade.

Synthetic Vision

In the retrofit or forward fit markets, synthetic vision is one of the applications most in demand, along with touch-screen capability and larger displays, according to industry officials. With forward fits, “I think that just about on every cockpit of every new aircraft out there is now offering some sort of synthetic vision option, and the retrofit (market) is getting there,” said Robert Clare, director of sales for Tucson, Ariz.-based Universal Avionics. The company introduced the first certified synthetic vision product for the Part 25 aircraft in 2007.

Smartview “is one of our hottest offerings,” said Parks. Honeywell is working on the next SmartView offering and with the OEMs the certification process for its Combined Vision System that joins SVS with infrared imagery Merrimack, N.H.-based Kollsman, said Parks.

“Rockwell Collins believes that more and more OEMs and operators will and are adopting this technology,” said Peterson. Unlike other vendors, Rockwell boosts its use SVS on the head up display (HUD) stressing, “the situational awareness advantages (it offers) as well as the approach minima and tangible operational advantages SVS can assist in providing when displayed on the HUD.”

Aside from its use on fixed-wing aircraft, the technology is also increasingly being used by the rotorcraft market where it can provide additional safety benefits. During this summer in Kansas, there were long stretches of 100-degree days without any meaningful precipitation creating extremely dry conditions, said Stone. These conditions did not impair landing conditions for airplanes; however, helicopters could experience “brown out because of all the dust coming up,” said Stone. Despite being enshrouded in a cloud of brown dust, the pilot using synthetic vision maintained a “virtual VFR view.”

Spurred on by the growing popularity of iPads and other tablets, even on the flight deck of commercial aircraft, interest in using touch-screen displays is also on the rise, and many of the vendors are offering or planning to offer the touch controlled products.

“Our products are really built and designed with touch in mind,” from the way “we sculpted the size of the unit, the material we use to grab a hold of the unit and the icons and the touch points that we use to interact with the unit,” Stone said. “The biggest challenge to overcome in the touch environment is (determining) how you can continue to interact with the touch control displays when things get kind of bumpy out there.” The company introduced the technology on its G3000 integrated cockpit system and is using it on GTN 650 and 750 products and its new G5000 system.

“Rockwell Collins has adopted these capabilities into our latest generation product offerings and will continue to explore improvements and broadening of the technical applications,” said Peterson. However, along with turbulence, key concerns include considerations for gloved users and physical reach considerations in larger flight deck. Last year, the company introduced what it called the industry’s first touch-control primary flight display for business jets and turboprop aircraft. The technology, which will be available in the Pro Line Fusion integrated avionics suite, is slated to be certified in 2013 and initially retrofitted into Hawker Beechcraft King Air aircraft.

CMC pioneered the use of touch-screen technology on its PilotView EFBs “and brought related user interface benefits as early as in 2005,” said Bégis. The company is preparing to introduce dual touch capabilities, “which may be offered as an upgrade in the near future,” he said. “More importantly, we think that software applications for pilots can be further improved in terms of user interface approaches and efficiency to fully leverage touch screen capabilities; a user interface designed for a PC or a PDA may look good, but may not be ideal or even adequate in a pilot environment.”

More Capable Displays

Another key trend has been a growing demand by OEMs and operators for larger, more capable displays. “Display sizes, resolution and processors are generally increasing to accommodate the graphical and format requirements of NextGen applications … and the wealth of synthetic data and rich graphical user interfaces … emerging in the commercial aerospace marketplace,” said Peterson.

Noting that Universal Avionics is developing a larger display system, Clare said operators considering a larger display should consider “not just the real estate on the front of the instrument panel but also the behind that panel.” There have been cases where operators deploying larger displays “ended up having to put the same size of displays back in because that was the perfect fit for that particular cockpit.”

In the commercial air transport, there is a preference for bigger displays, but there are two important issues to consider beyond size, said Glover: Will the display technology provide everything they want to have and will it enhance the minimum equipment list capability of the airplane? The answers will vary according to customer needs. In some installations, two 10-inch units might be more suitable than two 15-inch displays. Universal Avionics offers a line of flat panel multifunction displays ranging up to 20 inches in size.

In the case of its PilotView EFB displays, CMC is “offering a wide range of high-end display solutions ranging from 8.4 to 12.1 inches,” said Bégis, noting that cockpit constraints limit the size of upgrades. “A 10.4-inch display size for retrofit can be seen as an optimum; we see 12.1-inch and larger sizes normally requiring further integration in the cockpit front and side display configurations with OEMs being involved in the process.”

Another key issue is cost. The larger displays have “been cost prohibitive for some time, but as the technologies mature and manufacturers, like ourselves, look to realize meaningful volume then we are able to lower those costs,” said Alpiser. For example, the company has been able to generate volume for its G1000 which uses large format displays and offer “much more affordable costs,” he said. “We have over 10,000 aircraft flying with that system now including everything from Cessna 172s up to Embraer jet aircraft.”

When it comes to lighting, “LCD remains the favored image technology; however, LED and OLED are emerging as a preferred backlight drivers due to their low power and longevity,” said Peterson.

Universal Avionics opted about two years ago, for example, to use LED instead of fluorescent backlighting in its flat panel displays, said Clare. LED backlighting “lowers the power consumption and increases the MTBF [mean time between failure].” There have been some challenges though: “it is not just plug play had to go in and tweak the colors a bit.”

For the most part, industry continues to explore the potential of the OLEDs. “I think it will be a viable technology, and we are just kind of pacing what we do with it,” said Parks.

“There is a progression from what we have seen from cold cathode florescent lights to LEDs to OLEDs,” said Glover. “I would not be surprised to see (OLED) technology emerging very shortly in certain applications” in general aviation and business aircraft, and as more technology matures and becomes more reliable, it will be used in larger and larger displays.

In the current retrofit market, most of the action involves upgrading from CRT to LCD giving operators performance improvements, maintenance cost reductions and access to new functionality, said Parks. With LCD, for instance, “a SVS software upgrade becomes possible.” With one of the largest avionics cockpit display system footprints, Honeywell is “working hard to develop alternatives, so we can replace some of those CRT display systems for people who want to continue to fly those older aircraft.”

Next month: Wire and Cable

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 [email protected].

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