L-3 applies iPod ideas to SmartDeck

 - September 26, 2007, 11:55 AM

After years of quiet development, L-3 Avionics Systems formally dropped the veil on its SmartDeck integrated avionics system at the NBAA Convention last month. The launch customer for the cockpit is Cirrus, which has selected SmartDeck for its single-engine personal jet.

In developing SmartDeck, L-3 Avionics engineers have produced an easy-to-use yet sophisticated pilot interface that applies design elements from the world of personal computers and Apple’s ubiquitous iPod to create an avionics system that eliminates as many buttons and knobs as possible. “Everything on the iPod can be done within three clicks,” said Adrienne Stevens, L-3 Avionics Systems president. “That’s the approach we took with SmartDeck. It’s not a me-too product. It’s an entirely new way of thinking about cockpit integration and how to make an interface that’s just incredibly easy to use.”

The main elements of SmartDeck are its large-format flight displays with bezel soft keys and an innovative center control unit (CCU) that’s used for entering flight plan information, setting radio frequencies and transponder codes, selecting autopilot modes and other tasks. The CCU display shares a common look with electronic flight bag (EFB) portable computers, but its functions are limited to a handful of tasks. Every other function the pilot needs to perform is integrated instead on the primary and multifunction displays.

During a demonstration flight last month in a Cirrus SR-22 that has been fitted with a test version of SmartDeck, the cockpit lived up to its advanced billing as a competent alternative to the integrated avionics systems from Avidyne and Garmin. One of the most noticeable differences between the L-3 Avionics glass displays and the Avidyne screens that are installed in production versions of the Cirrus SR line is how much brighter and crisper the SmartDeck units are. Measuring 12 inches diagonally, they are also slightly larger.

Human Factors Considerations

SmartDeck incorporates a number of design elements that will be familiar to personal computer users and, in all likelihood, welcomed by pilots. For example, airport and navaid lists on the MFD include a scroll bar similar to those found on personal computers. Another nice touch, the flight plan lists incorporate graphical insertion points showing precisely where the new leg will be placed. On/off indicators for various map features (showing navaids, airways, political boundaries and roads, for example) fill in with green when they are turned on and revert to black when turned off, similar to computer “radio buttons.”

Another interesting element is the HSI compass rose, which instead of being a circle is an oval to give it a 3-D appearance. While features such as these might seem basic, they illustrate the thoughtfulness that has gone into the design, specifically with regard to human factors. Soft and hard keys, as another example, emit a soft blue glow that designers picked for its “calming” effect.

“We wanted SmartDeck to be aesthetically appealing, from the colors we used down to the look and feel of the buttons,” Stevens said. Yet for all the attention paid to the visual and sensory aspects of SmartDeck, the brains behind the system are equally impressive. SmartDeck software is being certified initially to level B and might eventually be tested and approved to level A. Stevens said the company plans first to penetrate the Part 23 market with versions of the system for OEM and retrofit applications and then perhaps migrate up to the Part 25 universe in transport-category business jets.

Most of the functions a pilot will perform routinely with SmartDeck are fairly straightforward using soft keys to activate various task areas and rotary knobs to scroll through menus. But the system has some quirks. For example, on the control panel between the PFD and MFD there is a curved vertical white line that serves to visually separate the keys reserved for operation of the left display with those of the right. SmartDeck developers confirmed that they added the line at the insistence of FAA pilots who have flown with the system.

Another peculiarity is the need for the pilot to press the heading soft key and then reach over to the center control panel and twist a knob whenever making a heading change on the HSI. This design logic eliminates the need to have a dedicated heading knob, but it’s somewhat irritating to have to perform a button push and knob turn for such a routine task.

L-3 developers admit there are certain inevitable tradeoffs that have arisen in the quest to eliminate knobs and buttons from the design. They stress that they are still fine-tuning some of the details. Garmin’s G1000 cockpit, they point out, has a dedicated heading knob, as well as more than a dozen other individual knobs and twice that many buttons. With SmartDeck, designers have cut the number of knobs that are included on the center control panel to two, one for controlling the PFD and one for the MFD. In that respect, SmartDeck’s interface could be compared with the finesse of a Mac and Garmin G1000’s with the precision of a PC. Both systems are highly capable, but their user interfaces employ strikingly different design architecture.

Behind the scenes, SmartDeck consists of two air-data attitude heading reference systems (ADAHRS), two data concentrators, two magnetometers, two WAAS GPS receivers, a flight display controller, two software-defined navcom radios, a mode-C transponder and S-Tec IntelliFlight 1950C digital autopilot. The system can interface with L-3 Avionics’ SkyWatch traffic advisory system, Landmark terrain awareness and warning system, Stormscope lightning-detection system, Iris enhanced-vision camera and other sensors, including graphical datalink weather through WSI and Sirius Satellite Radio. L-3 produces most SmartDeck components, with the exception of the autopilot, transponder (Becker) and audio panel (PS Engineering).

Basic flight-planning tasks, radio tuning and autopilot use were a breeze during the demo flight, which involved a number of ILS and Rnav approaches to Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Mich., where L-3 Avionics is based. Modern low-cost ADAHRS units such as those used in the SmartDeck system are apparently up to the task of replacing traditional mechanical gyroscopic flight instruments. Flight maneuvers that could knock early AHRS units offline (such as small but deliberate incremental heading changes) had no effect on the system.

The SmartDeck name has existed for a number of years, tracing its lineage back to the days when Goodrich owned the business. L-3 Communications purchased the company in 2003, giving senior managers at the avionics division the green light to relaunch SmartDeck with technology assistance from other L-3 divisions. As a result, the CCU display and a number of other components are being supplied by sister L-3 companies. SmartDeck will involve 31 TSO approvals in all, 21 of which have been completed, Stevens said. The initial STC for the system is expected next spring, with an announcement likely to come at the Sun ’n’ Fun show in Lakeland, Fla.