Thales taps business aircraft market with Top Deck cockpit

 - February 1, 2007, 11:37 AM

Thales Avionics is in the final development phase of a new avionics suite, dubbed Top Deck, for regional and large business jets. It uses four 13.6-in LCD screens and has an “intuitive” man-machine interface.

During a visit to the French equipment manufacturer design offices in Toulouse last month, Thales engineers allowed AIN to get a glimpse of the Top Deck demonstrator. They explained the design philosophy–to stick to the tasks the pilot flying (PF) and the pilot not flying (PNF) perform–and gave details on how this has been implemented.

At first glance, with its four large screens in a T layout and its two cursor-control devices (CCDs), Top Deck looks like a clone of EASy, the flight deck Dassault developed using the Honeywell Primus Epic integrated avionics suite as a platform. However, the way Top Deck is implemented is less oriented toward flexibility and personalization. Rather, Thales engineers have emphasized making the pilot’s tools available quickly, while separating tools for the PF from those for the PNF.

“The tasks the PF and the PNF have to perform are different; therefore, the two halves of the flight deck do not have to be identical,” said Jean-Philippe Pinheiro, a Thales engineer who specializes in both flight systems and human factors. First, the lower center screen is the navigation display. As a long-term task, navigation planning has to be done by the PNF and is thus the only crewmember who can control the navigation display. In addition, only one cursor can go into a display at any given time. To ensure better coordination, the flight management system (FMS) allows the crew to work on one flight plan only.

About 10 pilots–test, airline, corporate, inspection and from the JAA–have participated in the development. Thales also plans to have an instructor “fly” the demonstrator. So far no one from the FAA has seen Top Deck.

Pinheiro told AIN that four objectives were pursued in designing the new avionics suite–make it intuitive, increase situational awareness, improve crew coordination and reduce workload. “Today, too much information is given to the pilot, and we wanted to provide him with only the information relevant at a given time,” he said. Consequently, Top Deck was designed under the dark-cockpit concept. “Eighty percent of the engine display is dark when the engines are working fine,” Pinheiro illustrated.

On the left- and right-hand sides are the primary flight displays (PFDs), and the engine and system data is displayed on the the top-center screen. The aforementioned navigation display can show a moving map and airport charts, among other data. As Dassault did with EASy, Thales has eliminated the conventional FMS control display unit from Top Deck. It is replaced by a Windows-like interface.

The efforts to increase the pilot’s situational awareness have translated into fewer functions in overhead or head-down positions. For example, the pilot can have weather radar, collision avoidance and system data displayed on the PFD, in addition to controller-pilot datalink messages and nav information, among other possibilities.
The FMS used on Top Deck was first developed for a retrofit on Lockheed Martin C-130 military transports. It was then improved for the AgustaWestland A109 helicopter. Finally, on Top Deck, Thales engineers made it interactive via a trackball-style CCD. Unlike EASy, Top Deck does not allow the cursor to slide from one screen to the next.

The CCD was inspired by the device Thales has been designing for the 550-seat Airbus A380. This is not surprising as the Toulouse-based offices (which now house 630 employees) were set up in 1999 to be physically closer to Airbus’s headquarters. Another common detail between the A380 flight deck and Top Deck is the Arinc 661 standard, the FMS dialog interface. Such synergy and utilization of existing pieces of equipment–such as T2CAS, which includes TCAS and TAWS–help minimize both development costs for the manufacturer and cost of ownership for the customer, Pinheiro emphasized.

The five basic buttons on the PFD are for datalink, navigation, radionavigation, auxiliaries and “direct to.” When one of these is pressed, the related control panel pops up (if not already displayed somewhere) and the cursor automatically positions inside it. Shortcut buttons are available for frequently used functions, such as “change range” for the moving map or “radar tilt” for the weather radar. When choosing an airport by its ICAO code, the pilot can transfer frequencies to the radio.

A “vertical display” capability shows the vertical profile of the aircraft’s flight path. Vertical representation of the terrain ahead is not yet available on the demonstrator, but Thales plans to add one. Several “reminders” are displayed in the upper section of both PFDs. Some of these reminders, such as that of the radio frequency, are also shown elsewhere in the display “in case of a failure” that requires reconfiguring the displays.

Thales’ demonstrator uses a conventional attitude symbol, but this can easily be changed to a flight-path vector symbol if desired, Pinheiro told AIN. He added that Top Deck is compatible with Thales’ head-up display (HUD). Last, but not least, the avionics suite is compatible with either fly-by-wire or conventional controls.

Controller-pilot datalink communication (CPDLC) is built in, and the pilot can even send such written messages using his voice instead of a keyboard. This requires a training phase for the computer to recognize the person’s voice. Thales has already tested its CPDLC with the French air-navigation authority.

On the top-center display, an alarm is automatically accompanied by a synoptic view of the affected system, as well as the related checklist. When possible, items are automatically validated. On the navigation display, the map can be oriented north up or by aircraft heading, and the flight plan can be input from the cockpit or downloaded before departure.

Top Deck can also provide mechanics with centralized maintenance data through a dedicated wireless tablet PC. The system is able to say where the failure occurred and immediately display the related “do list.”

The avionics hardware behind Top Deck is based on the integrated modular avionics (IMA) concept, which allows significant weight and space reduction. Bruno Nouzille, head of Thales flight systems unit, told AIN that both weight and size are about 30 percent less than conventional hardware. The backbone of Top Deck is a high-speed (8 mbps) Arinc 629-standard bus.

A screen failure isn’t expected to affect dispatch reliability, Pinheiro said, since the aircraft will be able to depart without a functioning lower center screen. However, should the failed screen be one of the three upper screens, the crew would have to exchange it with the lower one.

When fewer than four screens are functioning, the information is reconfigured so that “what’s most important is still in front of the pilot” and it is always displayed “in the same form,” Pinheiro said. Thales wants to have the flight deck certified to fly with only one screen remaining, which would provide the system with a high level of redundancy.

Among possible foreseeable Top Deck applications is the 100-seat Bombardier BRJ-X 100, if the program is launched. Top Deck could also be an upgrade for existing aircraft. On business jets, Top Deck can typically be fitted in a large cockpit such as that of the Bombardier Global 5000 or Global Express. However, when asked to identify the smallest business jet that could accommodate the new suite, Nouzille was unable to be specific.

Asked whether Thales would continue working on Top Deck to keep it up-to-date in case the company had to wait a couple of years for the first application, Pinheiro smiled and sounded confident that an application would emerge soon, although he would not reveal in which aircraft. Bombardier is said to have expressed “a lot of interest” and representatives of the Canadian airframer are expected to revisit Toulouse this month. “We can start cockpit-aircraft integration tomorrow,” Pinheiro emphasized.