HAI Convention News

Sentinel a single pilot’s best friend

 - February 22, 2009, 10:03 AM

Honeywell is at HeliExpo’09 with its Eurocopter AStar, which it uses to develop, test and demonstrate the company’s wide range of avionics for helicopters. During the convention, Steven Kilbourne, Honeywell chief pilot rotary-wing, is flying demos out of Fullerton Airport for interested customers and media representatives.

Though the helicopter is chock full of avionics displays, computers and boxes, the main focus of these flights is on a product Honeywell calls Sentinel, and secondarily on a related product named Observer. Both feature sophisticated mapping systems, but address different markets. Flying with Kilbourne to help operate, demonstrate and explain the products are Mel White, managing director of Skyforce Avionics, West Sussex, England (Honeywell’s design center of excellence for mission systems), and Dennis Martin, Honeywell application engineer. Martin, Kilbourne and the AStar are based at Honeywell’s facility in Everett, Wash.

“The two systems have a lot in common, primarily the basic core mapping system,” explained White to HAI Convention News. “The Observer system supports camera systems and the search-and-rescue features, which the Sentinel does not. A key difference is that the Observer supports multiple workstations, whereas the Sentinel is essentially a single-point work station.”

The Observer is therefore more flexible. “It is a completely integrated mission system, which is configured to meet users’ needs,” White continued. “From the core processor, the Observer system spools up seven workstations and seven displays.
Into Observer we can integrate cameras, tracking devices, transponders, search and rescue radars, ground DF systems. We customize mapping to a customer’s exact needs.”

Martin added, “Most of the applications we’re working on, whether search-and-rescue or airborne law enforcement in Europe and the Middle East, usually have three or more crew. So you need that distributed feature of Observer.” He added that Observer and Sentinel can be used together. “Pilots often don’t want to see the level of mapping detail that the other crewmembers need from Observer. So we give the pilot a switch so that he can select one or the other.”

According to Honeywell, Sentinel has gained favor among UK and European HEMS and executive operators. HEMS helicopters in Europe, where Sentinel entered service last year, typically fly with a pilot and a paramedic, who also serves as navigator, Martin explained. “In that case you need only one navigation system that will give you detailed mapping. The Sentinel does that cost effectively.”

White explained why he believes Sentinel should be attractive to U.S. HEMS operators. “First, it is generally a very good navigator for people who do predominantly VFR operations. Secondly, it has some really nice features. It gives you XM weather and traffic warnings. It gives you very good mapping and terrain awareness. Sentinel meets the requirement for situational awareness almost completely. We feel it fits very well with the HEMS market.”

Sentinel is priced at $9,000 retail. The base price of the Observer is $40,000 retail. 

Sentinel Demo Flight

Sentinel and Observer are both impressive and offer the pilot and mission user a great many features. On my short demo flight of about 15 minutes, however, their operations were a bit overwhelming. Mel White, managing director of Skyforce Avionics, sat in the back of the AStar and controlled some functions of the Sentinel, although from time to time he’d have me work through the unit’s on-screen menu to change or adjust some items. Without any prior exposure to the system, it seemed rather complex to me, and I was surprised to learn that operators get only one day of training on it from Honeywell. Nevertheless, I was beginning to comprehend how to adjust a few functions after only a few instructions.

Reflecting on my demo flight a few hours later, I can comprehend the value of both systems, but would caution potential buyers to evaluate closely their features and operation in relation to how and where they fly their helicopters. For example, while single pilots will certainly benefit from Sentinel’s many situational-awareness features, they may find it difficult to use the map function when it is zoomed in close enough to read street names. Frankly, I found the larger Observer screen frequently drawing my eye away from the Sentinel screen.