Cockpit Avionics

 - August 2, 2007, 12:50 PM

When Eclipse Aviation founder and CEO Vern Raburn earlier this year declared that a retooled avionics system for the Eclipse 500 very light jet would be tested and certified within four months, many observers were skeptical. More telling, however, was the revelation that Eclipse’s hand-picked supplier team also had doubts about the accelerated timetable. Outlined on a conference call with reporters and suppliers on March 5, the certification program timeline was described as concluding in June. But in reality, by the middle of June the flight-test portion of the program was barely getting started.

Fast-forward five months and, predictably, Eclipse now says development of the Avio NG (next generation) avionics system has fallen behind schedule. But the company still insists it can meet a revised certification target date of late next month. Flight testing is under way aboard two airplanes, the company said, and results have been positive. Although suppliers are towing the company line, some executives said privately that a further delay remains a possibility, with one senior official citing a certification date of October or November as a possibility.  

Eclipse is eager for Avio NG components to be slotted onto the production line since every airplane it builds between now and then must return to the factory at a later date to have the original Avidyne avionics pulled and replaced with the new equipment–all at the manufacturer’s expense.

Eclipse unceremoniously dumped Avidyne early this year after months of ongoing integration and reliability difficulties with the original Avio cockpit. It replaced the Massachusetts avionics supplier with a team of six companies led by Innovative Solutions & Support (IS&S) of Exton, Pa.

Most people know IS&S as a supplier of RVSM hardware. Future owners and pilots of the diminutive jet (many of whom are one and the same) are probably wondering whether the Avio NG system will be any better than the avionics it is replacing. Raburn himself has said pilot differences training won’t be required for the transition from the Avidyne cockpit to the IS&S system.

On this score, however, the parties now involved agree on one assertion: Avio NG will be a better avionics package than the Eclipse 500’s original Avio system. It’s a claim, but fortunately there’s solid evidence with which to check the facts.

For anyone who’s had the chance to see the Avidyne displays up close in the Eclipse 500 prototypes, they seemed oddly out of place in an airplane claimed to be as advanced and highly integrated as any on the market. The display resolution was poor, for starters. Also, side-angle-viewing deficiencies meant the left and right PFD were different part numbers. To many, the pilot interface had a decidedly unprofessional look–not ideal in an airplane meant to be flown by seasoned pros for air-taxi operations.

In short, the Avidyne equipment represented 1990s technology in an airplane meant to change the way we fly in the 21st century. It’s a dilemma for all aircraft makers: in the time it takes to develop and certify an all-new airplane, computing and display technology has leaped several steps forward, leaving the OEMs with leading-edge airplanes that feature less-than-leading avionics. 

By contrast to Avidyne’s Avio displays, the IS&S displays are veritable high-resolution masterpieces, presenting information in a clean and logical layout with exceptional side-angle viewing. Executives at American Airlines were so impressed that they decided to replace the CRT screens and electromechanical instruments in the airline’s fleet of Boeing 757s and 767s with the IS&S displays.

In fact, the look of the Avio NG cockpit is sufficiently altered that differences training might indeed be required, although Eclipse and IS&S both maintain that won’t be the case. Much of the credit for the improved look of the cockpit goes to the flight management software, licensed to IS&S by program partner Chelton Flight Systems. The original code for the FMS was written in large part by Chelton Flight Systems cofounder Rick Price, a former F/A-18 pilot known for applying generous doses of fighter-pilot philosophy to his civilian projects.   
American Airlines’ contract with IS&S covers nearly 200 airplanes in its fleet. Four LCD displays will replace an array of instruments originally installed in American’s 757s and 767s, spanning 22 instruments in all, including flight displays, engine indicators and controllers. Hardware deliveries to American are scheduled to start toward the end of the year. Once components start arriving, airplanes can be modified in as little as four days thanks to their modular design, the manufacturer said.

IS&S’s Cockpit/IP display retrofit has been gaining traction with buyers, beating out competing cockpit systems based on price, reliability and capability, according to Ray Wilson, the company’s recently appointed CEO. “Our system has been well received by customers, starting with our military programs and cargo airline ABX Air and continuing right into air transport and general aviation,” he said.

ABX Air last year upgraded its fleet of 757s and 767s with IS&S displays, which turned out to be a major factor in American’s decision to choose the Cockpit/IP product, he said. The company has also partnered with Cessna on a retrofit program for Citations, though progress on that program has been hampered as IS&S focuses its attention to the Avio NG certification program and its contract with American Airlines.

The retooled Eclipse 500 cockpit will include the IS&S flight displays and FMS software from Chelton Flight Systems, dual IFR mode-S transponders supplied by Garmin, navcom radios from Honeywell and a digital audio panel produced by PS

All of the Eclipse 500s already built, as well as those being manufactured now, will be retrofitted with the new equipment by the end of the year or early next year. Of the 402 airplanes that Eclipse says it will produce this year, “significantly fewer than half” will roll out of its Albuquerque, N.M. factory with the Avidyne hardware, the company said. IS&S displayed Avio NG hardware at its Paris Air Show exhibit, confirming that the upgraded cockpit will be worth the wait.

This isn’t the first avionics supplier change for the Eclipse 500. In the wake of cost overruns three-and-a-half years ago, Eclipse replaced BAE Systems with a half dozen smaller suppliers, including Meggitt Avionics for the autopilot and Hispano-Suiza for the fadec. The VLJ maker also split with engine supplier and program partner Williams International midway through the airplane’s development, replacing that company’s EJ22 turbofan with the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F.

Gulfstream Hones SV-PFD Concept
Another notable cockpit program headed toward likely certification later in the year is Gulfstream’s synthetic-vision primary flight display (SV-PFD), under development with partner Honeywell. Announced at last summer’s Farnborough Air Show, the system will be offered as an optional upgrade to buyers of the G550, G500, G450 and G350 as well as current operators of models flying with the PlaneView cockpit.

SV-PFD features a 3-D color image of terrain overlaid on the PFD. The system combines terrain, obstacle and airport data from Honeywell’s enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS) to create digitally rendered skies on the flight displays. The appearance is reminiscent of a video game, but the inclusion of symbology borrowed from the head-up display (HUD) and specialized flight cues labels this a serious tool and not a gimmick or toy.

“With its real-time, pilot’s view of the world beyond the cockpit windshield, SV-PFD increases a pilot’s ability to accurately interpret the depth and texture of terrain, obstacles, runways and approaches,” said Pres Henne, Gulfstream senior vice president for programs, engineering and test. The goal of bringing SV-PFD to the cockpit of its top models, he said, is to improve safety.

Demonstrations of the technology provided by Honeywell certainly prove that the potential for increased safety and situational awareness exists. The hills and mountains in the Honeywell cockpit are re-created with illusory depth and texture that include an azure sky always projecting a perfect, daylight VFR world. Where traditional ADIs and modern EFIS provide adequate basic information, SV-PFD combines information from a variety of sources, providing a more complete situational picture on a single display.

Gulfstream and Honeywell have released little information about their progress on SV-PFD, except to say that the certification program remains on track. But thanks to the arrival of LCD flight displays, powerful computer processors, graphics adapters, GPS position and increasingly accurate database models of terrain, obstacles and airports, experts say it’s only a matter of time before SVS becomes the industry standard PFD configuration.

Inclusion of SV-PFD functionality in its airplanes wasn’t the only big news from Gulfstream recently. The company said Rockwell Collins’ new HGS-6000–among the first HUDs with an LCD projector offered for business jets–has been selected standard equipment aboard the G450 and G550 and as an option on the remainder of its large-cabin model line. Gulfstream expects its version of the Rockwell Collins HUD will enter service in 2009. Gulfstream’s current supplier, Honeywell, plans to exit the HUD business.

The introduction of LCD HUD technology to business jets is expected to become a significant trend in the years ahead. HUD systems have typically used bulky cathode-ray-tube projectors to beam light through collimator lens systems and onto a thick piece of combiner glass mounted in front of the pilot. The LCD projector weighs much less than a CRT projector and represents opportunities for cost savings and reliability improvements, Rockwell Collins said. “This is a big change, a big leap in technology,” said Dennis Helgeson, Rockwell Collins vice president and general manager of business and regional systems, “which helps us in terms of better luminance in the HGS as well as lower power and lower weight.”

Other OEMs on the SVS Fence
Dassault may have taken the lead on LCD HUD and fly-by-wire technology in the Falcon 7X, but the manufacturer has yet to announce a formal synthetic-vision development program for the airplane’s EASy cockpit. That could be about to change. A Dassault spokesman said the company has been holding discussions with Honeywell about bringing SVS to its EASy-equipped models. He added that he did not know how far those talks had progressed, however.

Bombardier is another story altogether as far as SVS is concerned, and its reticence on the subject requires a certain amount of speculation on the part of observers wondering what the company will do next. Developed around the same time as the Gulfstream GV (now the G500/550), Bombardier’s Global Express ultra-long-range jet is as close a competitor as there exists to the wide-chord-wing, big-oval-window jet from Savannah, Ga.

Bombardier and Gulfstream have fought each other on max range, cabin size, product support, dispatch reliability and even certification of competing half-million-dollar infrared enhanced-vision systems (EVS). But as for the basic cockpit in each airplane, Gulfstream has the hands-down edge. That’s because Gulfstream chose to upgrade the basic CRT cockpit in the G550 with large-format LCDs capable of presenting SV-PFD data. For the Global Express, Bombardier kept the CRT Primus 2000XP avionics system, which cannot support SVS.

What’s so intriguing about Bombardier’s decision is that the company recently upgraded the cockpit in the Challenger 604 with large-format LCD flight displays from Rockwell Collins, redesignating the airplane the Challenger 605. Rockwell Collins has an SVS development program of its own and is eager to find an OEM partner with which to launch its first certification program.

However, a switch from Primus 2000XP avionics in the Global series to Collins Pro Line 21 would give Bombardier an all-Rockwell Collins fleet (including the Learjet line), something the manufacturer might be hesitant to do. Again, it’s all speculation until Bombardier announces its intentions, but one has to believe Gulfstream sales people are pointing out their competitors’ flight-deck tech shortcomings at every turn.

Much has been said and written about the Garmin G1000, Avidyne Entegra and now IS&S Cockpit/IP avionics systems, but there are other developmental systems on the verge of emerging that will demand more attention soon enough. Honeywell’s Apex system is a prime example. While making its first transatlantic journey from Switzerland, the prototype “Next Generation” PC-12 stopped at Iqaluit, Canada, this past spring for a series of cold-weather trials before arriving at Pilatus’ North American headquarters in Broomfield, Colo. Apex hasn’t won many OEM competitions, but the PC-12 award was a big one. Certification for the airplane–and the avionics–is expected by the end of the year.

L-3 Avionics Systems, meanwhile, continues quiet development work of the SmartDeck cockpit, described as a combination of integrated flight controls and displays. Pictures of the system can be found on the Web and there’s even a SmartDeck Web page, but it’s merely a boilerplate holding cell for a future site.

Ops Technologies, a small Beaverton, Ore. avionics supplier, is making a name for itself as well with the selection of its cockpit for the ATG Javelin, as well as an STC program to bring its system to the Cirrus SR22 and scuttlebutt that Cirrus is considering the cockpit for its recently announced single-engine, V-tail jet. The company has also been developing a version of its Pegasus cockpit for the King Air 90 with partner Seagull Aviation in Wisconsin.  

ADS-B Rulemaking Due Next Month
One technology for the cockpit that will certainly be making headlines for years to come is automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B). Able to transmit aircraft position, groundspeed and other important data to ATC and all other appropriately equipped aircraft in the vicinity, ADS-B could one day replace radar for primary surveillance, some say.

FAA officials are enthusiastic about the technology, saying the ground infrastructure required for nationwide ADS-B implementation would be far less expensive to install and maintain than secondary surveillance radar, and that its widespread introduction will enhance safety and increase airport capacity. At June’s Paris Air Show, FAA associate administrator for safety Nicholas Sabatini said proposed ADS-B rulemaking will be introduced next month, adding the technology will likely be mandated in all commercial airplanes by 2020.   

United Parcel Service isn’t waiting until then to equip its airplanes with ADS-B avionics. The company says it will save millions of dollars a year by introducing technology thanks to capacity improvements and fuel savings, both in the air and on the ground.

UPS has begun installing ADS-B avionics that allow flight crews to make their own spacing on certain arrivals. Karen Lee, director of flight operations for UPS, said that once the fleet is equipped the company will save nearly $3 million in fuel costs plus additional gains from time saved at its shipping hub in Louisville, Ky.

“Each of our aircraft will save between 250 and 465 pounds of fuel per arrival,” Lee said. “That equates to about 900,000 gallons of fuel a year,” a figure that does not include fuel savings on the ground, where taxi delays are expected to be reduced.
Developed for UPS by Aviation Communications and Surveillance Systems (ACSS), the so-called Safe Route technology provides symbology on an electronic flight bag (EFB) display showing the position of all other appropriately equipped aircraft. Pilots can select any target on their screen and are automatically given airspeed commands to follow the aircraft at set distance.

Controllers are still responsible for separating airplanes, but their role is reduced to that of aircraft “manager,” Lee said. Crews can fly continuous descent arrival (CDA) procedures into Louisville and then self-separate on final approach for time and fuel savings. This merging and spacing will also enable crews to throttle back to idle power and stay there for most of the descent.

“The controllers love it, the pilots love it,” she said. “ADS-B will increase our capacity by 10 to 15 percent once we install it on all our airplanes.” The full range of savings, she said, won’t be realized until all aircraft are equipped with avionics, expected to occur over the next few years.

Sabatini spoke of the possibility at some point of “HOV lanes for the sky” in which ADS-B equipped airplanes would be given priority over non-equipped aircraft, perhaps for arrivals to ADS-B-only runways, as an example. Self-spacing, he said, results in far more consistent ground tracks, meaning less time spent “driving around at 6,000 feet” while ATC attempts to deal with arriving aircraft.

L-3 Joins EFB Fray

Meanwhile, L-3 Communications, the parent company of L-3 Avionics Systems and ACSS (which it owns jointly with Thales), said it will produce an EFB portable cockpit computer, adding yet another player to a market already flush with competitors.

L-3’s class-2 device will include a color touch screen generally used in specialized military applications and a computer processor running Microsoft Windows. Like other EFB products, the unit allows flight crews to view electronic approach charts, manuals, checklists and other information.

Developed by L-3’s Display Systems and Aviation Recorders divisions, the EFB can also host a number of proprietary applications developed by other L-3 units. These include live video images supplied by the Iris enhanced-vision camera sold by L-3 Avionics Systems, a surface area movement management tool developed by ACSS and cockpit weather data through a partnership with WSI.

Buyers can choose a single- or dual-display configuration that connects to a single processing unit. The product, due for initial certification by the end of the year, will be marketed to business aircraft operators and airlines, L-3 said.

More than a dozen companies currently offer EFB products, but L-3 said it believes the range of cockpit applications its unit can host and the high-resolution color display will stand out in the market.  

“Our displays are the best in the industry,” said Bob McGill, L-3 Display Systems president.

The company specializes in the development of military integrated systems and will be responsible for designing, manufacturing, testing and certifying the product, he

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