Jeppesen plots a new course toward synthetic-vision charts

 - October 8, 2007, 9:15 AM

Researchers at Jeppesen are rethinking the “next evolutionary concepts” in navigation charting in an effort that company officials said will involve a gradual shift away from paper charts in favor of new types of electronic charts. At the top of the heap of ideas seriously being considered is a unique synthetic-vision system (SVS) in which 3-D nav fixes would appear before the pilots’ eyes on the primary flight displays (PFDs).

The strategy, according to Jeppesen president Mark Van Tine, will mean a progression from two-dimensional charts that pilots hold in their hands to three-dimensional synthetic-vision “maps” on which nav waypoints, terrain, obstacles and a host of other information can be presented on the flight-deck displays.

Van Tine refers to the emerging concept as the “complete synthesis of perfect information,” meaning, in his words, a culling of the vast airport, terrain and obstacle data that Jeppesen has collected through the years–and continues to collect each day. In addition to maintaining the company’s enormous library of navigation charts and a worldwide terrain database, Jeppesen has also been surveying large airports around the world to develop detailed taxiway and ramp maps. The company plans to continue the operation into the future, moving on to smaller airports used by business aircraft until it has collected detailed surveys of thousands of airports. This information will be updated routinely and, combined with other available data, will give pilots an unprecedented amount of flight-relevant information from the time they taxi from the ramp until the landing rollout and taxi to the hangar at their destination, said Van Tine.

Next-generation charting will mark a significant change in the way cockpit information can be presented, he said, all predicated on the goal of reducing the fatal aircraft accident rate. “We plan to do it by developing synthetic databases of information that can be used by pilots in the real world,” and by presenting that information in logical formats on the flight displays, Van Tine added.

Putting a Twist on SVS
Jeppesen has been honing its SVS concepts for the past three years with the close assistance of researchers from NASA and the University of Darmstadt in Germany. The development work culminated with public demonstrations of SVS last month in a specially equipped Piper Cheyenne I Super 500 at Denver Centennial Airport. Owned and operated by Canadian research firm Marinvent, the Cheyenne has been fitted with special SVS displays and monitoring equipment, which pilots have been using as part of a comprehensive evaluation program.

During a demonstration flight last month from Centennial Airport to Colorado Springs, Marinvent president John Maris put SVS through its paces, flying a number of instrument approaches with the aid of the SVS nav database stored in the flight computers. Instead of having to rely on paper approach charts or traditional electronic moving maps, pilots using the system can see the navigation waypoints on the approaches in 3-D, with terrain and obstacles in the background, similar to the video-game-like view of other SVS concepts.

But Jeppesen’s input puts a twist on SVS as most pilots think of it. As the Cheyenne flew the approach procedure, in this case the ILS to Runway 35R, fixes appeared on the display as floating waypoints and a virtual “tunnel in the sky” provided a clear picture of the heading and altitude needed to stay on course.

“The synthetic-vision presentation provides a nice view of airspace and terrain that’s not possible using what we have today,” said Maris, who has been serving as safety pilot for the SVS flight trials in his company’s Cheyenne and Piaggio Avanti.

Developing Vector Charts
Marinvent assists aerospace partners with systems and human factors engineering, simulation, flight-testing and software development and certification. It has played a key role not only in testing SVS, but also in aiding the technology’s maturation. In fact, Marinvent sold Jeppesen the vector graphics technology used in its electronic charts and has been a development partner for the past nine years.

Vector technology is a key to the future of traditional electronic moving maps, according to Jeppesen. It re-creates navigation charts from a set of computer data as opposed to the raster scans of paper charts used, for example, on portable EFB computers. Raster charts look exactly like Jeppesen paper charts. They should, since they are digital pictures of the actual charts. The advantage of the raster concept is that it presents pilots with electronic versions of the actual charts they are familiar and comfortable with. But while a raster chart is a “picture” of a paper chart, a vector chart is a set of data packages, rather than a fixed graphic file, meaning that it is far more versatile.

Designers of vector charts can start from square one creating moving maps that best
fit LCD flight displays, rather than trying to force what originated as a piece of paper
to fit an MFD. Jeppesen officials showed prototypes of these kinds of maps, which had black backgrounds for easier readability in dark cockpits and course lines colored to correspond to the legs presented on the FMS flight-plan page (for example, magenta for the current leg).

Van Tine said Jeppesen is tackling future concepts without carrying over any preconceived ideas of what a navigation chart should look like. Just because navigation charts used to be printed on paper does not mean that this format needs to be carried over to digital presentations on the displays, Van Tine said. So far, the answers seem to lie in SVS and tunnel-in-the-sky guidance, agreed Van Tine, Maris and NASA researchers who have been closely involved in the testing.

For its part, NASA has also been flying a Gulfstream V fitted with an SVS developed by Rockwell Collins that includes the Jeppesen charting concepts. Gulfstream is known to be interested in bringing the technology to its long-range business jets, highlighted by comments to AIN last month by Gulfstream president Bryan Moss that the Savannah, Ga., airframe maker “absolutely intends to be a leader” in bringing technologies such as SVS to civil aviation.

Jeppesen, meanwhile, has been holding discussions with Rockwell Collins, Honeywell and others about integrating its SVS technology with forthcoming avionics systems from the avionics manufacturers. The regulatory hurdles remain the chief barrier to bringing SVS to the flight decks of business aircraft, but the FAA appears willing to consider seriously advanced concepts like SVS, especially after the synthetic-vision EFIS from Chelton Flight Systems gained certification and Gulfstream operators flying with infrared enhanced- vision systems were permitted lower straight-in landing minimums than non-EVS-equipped airplanes at Category I airports.

“We are all but convinced that synthetic-vision technology has a place in aviation,” said Van Tine, adding that the nagging question is how best to implement it in the cockpit. “That’s what we’re trying to find out.”