Universal first to certify a synthetic vision suite

 - April 21, 2008, 11:09 AM

Tucson, Ariz.-based Universal Avionics achieved a significant milestone last month, becoming the first company to certify a synthetic-vision system (SVS) for aircraft. It is a feat that some believe heralds a new era, not only for Universal, but also for aviation itself.

The terrain-based 3-D depiction of Vision 1 shows the aircraft on an MFD relative to nearby terrain and its flight plan. Although the Vision 1 view is approved only for situational awareness, but not navigation, it serves as the first FAA-approved iteration of SVS, a concept that Universal expects will help the company to grow and prosper in the years ahead.

Presented on a Universal MFD 640 display, Vision 1 is the result of several key technologies–including TAWS, computer processing and active-matrix flat-panel displays–applied to a single task: enhancing situational awareness.

Next, Universal plans to certify a synthetic-vision primary flight display (PFD) that would replace a traditional ADI with a computer- generated view of terrain. The PFD portion of Vision 1 is a key part of the company’s long-term strategy, but one that will have to wait for certification until at least the end of this year as flight tests continue.

As a Universal spokesman put it recently, “We have to walk before we run, and this is our first step.”

The view on the Vision 1 MFD is that of a remote camera position, showing the airplane from a spot that is behind, to the right and slightly above. Overlay of the flight plan from a Universal FMS includes deviation indications, trend vectors and a compass symbol.

The $38,000 system is designed to interface with Universal’s TAWS, and must be used with the MFD 640 display, both of which are sold separately. Universal is awaiting the initial STC for Vision 1 in the company’s King Air 350 testbed, after which the system will be fitted in the first customer airplane. That aircraft is a King Air B200 for an operator who has requested a five-display upgrade and dual FMS installation. The spokesman said Universal is targeting the business aircraft retrofit market.

The Vision 1 terrain database is stored in solid-state memory inside the Vision 1 computer, which is housed in a 2-MCU box that weighs 9.7 lb. VGA video output is displayed on the MFD 640 at a rate of at least 20 frames per second, ensuring that there is no jitter on the picture as the aircraft banks, climbs or descends.

Terrain images use topographical coloring similar to that of aviation sectional charts. Hills and mountains appear in shades of brown and green and oceans and other large bodies of water in blue. Shading on the display, said the spokesman, gives the pilot a sense of movement in flight.

What’s Next?
Universal announced Vision 1 at the 2000 NBAA Convention, during which company founder Hubert Naimer said the complete package would likely be certified within a year. The FAA has been understandably cautious since then, however, delaying the approval process by asking lots of questions and flying the system for many hours.

A Universal spokesman said approval of the PFD portion of Vision 1 should be in hand by the end of the year. If so, next year Universal plans to offer the PFD version of Vision 1 for use with its ADI Models 550, 600 and 640, as well as the Model 890 PFD/ND.

Several avionics makers, including Honeywell and Rockwell Collins, are studying SVS concepts, but no other company is close to certifying an SVS view on a PFD. The spokesman said the FAA still has some concerns about the PFD field of view that have to do with the scale of hills and mountains on the display as they relate to what pilots actually see out the windshield.

To date, nearly 60 representatives from the FAA have evaluated the Vision 1 PFD, with comments and concerns running the gamut. While most are firmly behind the concept, some oppose it. The major complaint among SVS detractors seems to be that the concept is too radical–that is, too similar to a video game–to make practical sense in business aircraft. Some even caution that an SVS view on a PFD could confuse pilots who are used to the traditional blue-over-brown of an ADI.