FAA is next in line to fly synthetic-vision cockpit

 - May 8, 2008, 5:38 AM

Universal Avionics, the Tucson, Ariz. avionics manufacturer known best for its line of FMS equipment, anticipates gaining FAA certification early next year for civil aviation’s first commercially available synthetic-vision primary flight display system. Developed with seed money from the company’s own coffers, the revolutionary concept, called Cockpit 1, is designed to assist pilots during low-visibility operations, which remain a leading contributor to fatal aircraft accidents. FAA evaluations of the concept are scheduled to start this month.

Begun nearly three years ago as a major engineering initiative at the company’s headquarters in Arizona and at its engineering centers in Redmond, Wash., and Norcross, Ga., the Cockpit 1 synthetic-vision system (SVS) applies sophisticated software and computer processor technology to drive full-color flight displays, providing pilots with a virtual-reality view of the world ahead of the airplane that is intended to replicate clear, sunny conditions no matter what the actual weather outside the aircraft happens to be.

Unlike enhanced vision, which uses infrared cameras or millimeter wave radar to peer through clouds and fog, synthetic vision creates a computer-game-like world, similar to the illusory scene presented by commercial flight simulators. The result is an artificial world, including mountains and obstacles, on active-matrix liquid crystal displays (AMLCD).

Universal offered private showings of the latest iteration of the Cockpit 1 concept in September at the NBAA Convention in Orlando, Fla. Universal engineers have created a decidedly compelling world from electrons and liquid crystals (see photos). In fact, some within the FAA consider the view presented on Universal’s PFD a little too compelling. As a result, Universal has adopted a go-slow approach toward certification, realizing that the FAA will accept only a limited amount of the overall Cockpit 1 concept at a time. Once different portions of the design have been used for a period of time in real flight operations, the FAA will be more likely to approve enhancements and upgrades.

Tracy Yost, Universal program director for the Cockpit 1 program, said development work is proceeding on pace and that the concept is ready for FAA evaluations, which are slated to begin later this month.

“From a development perspective it is essentially done,” Yost said. “The FAA is putting together a review team to evaluate it. They are taking a conservative approach because it’s new and innovative, and we’re working with the FAA to mitigate their concerns. As far as the timeline, we had hoped to have it done by the end of this year, but it’s probably going to go into next year to get closure with the FAA evaluations.”

The company, in fact, is already well along in its quest to convince the FAA that its ideas for the flight deck of the future surpass the levels of safety provided by traditional blue-over-brown ADIs to which most pilots have grown accustomed.

This past summer Universal became the first avionics maker to certify a synthetic-vision system, though not for presentation on the PFD. Portrayed on a Universal MFD 640 multifunction display, the company’s Vision 1 system as certified provides crews with an “exocentric” view of their position, that is, an external view of their aircraft replicating that of a camera sight showing the airplane from a spot behind, to the right and slightly above.

The terrain-based 3-D depiction of Vision 1 shows the aircraft on the MFD relative to nearby terrain and its flight plan. Although the Vision 1 view is approved only for situational awareness, and not navigation, it is unique in that it is the first FAA-
approved iteration of SVS. In fact, SVS is gaining broad acceptance among pilots and policy makers alike as avionics manufacturers and NASA continue to spend serious money on research and development.

Vision 1, said Yost, is the result of several key technologies–including TAWS, computer processors, software technology and active-matrix flat-panel displays–applied to a single task: enhancing pilot situational awareness. 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. The Vision 1 terrain database, a key piece of the system’s architecture, 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.

Next on the agenda, of course, is certification of the full “egocentric” view of Vision 1, the portrayal of a synthetic view of the world on the PFD. Once both views have been certified, Universal plans to concentrate on certifying the system for use with its large-format EFI 890 displays, flight testing of which is scheduled to get under way early next year. Assuming testing goes smoothly, Universal anticipates full certification of the display and Vision 1 ADI by the third quarter of next year.

List price for the computer processor portion of Vision 1 will be $30,000, according to Yost. The EFI 890 displays, meanwhile, will sell for a list price of $60,000. Also required for a complete Cockpit 1 retrofit are a number of control panels (priced in the $6,000 to $7,000 range each). Universal plans to offer several Cockpit 1 options, one of the first being a three-display package with five control panels and Universal’s TAWS, which is offered at a list price of $36,000. This means the minimum list price for Cockpit 1 with three displays would be about $250,000, not including the cost of installation. A complete upgrade to Cockpit 1 that includes new FMSs, radio control units and as many as six cockpit displays could easily top half a million dollars.

Universal recently installed Vision 1 and TAWS equipment in the company’s King Air and plans to have Elliott Aviation install the larger 890 displays later this year. Company founder Hubert Naimer’s Challenger 600 has also been upgraded with Cockpit 1 equipment and is routinely flying in Switzerland and elsewhere around the world.

Yost said certification of the exocentric view of Vision 1 went “extremely well,” adding that he is optimistic that the company can “gain certification for the egocentric view in a timely fashion once we get all the FAA players together.”

In the photos accompanying this article, the aircraft is shown sitting on the runway, an option that will not be included in the initial certification of Cockpit 1, because the FAA does not want pilots to try to land or take off using only the view on the displays. Instead of runways, generic airport symbols will appear on the PFD. Universal believes that eventually it will be possible to show the runway on the displays, with critical information such as runway length remaining and a “takeoff monitor” that would give pilots an indication of whether they have enough runway left to get off safely.

Universal is currently in discussion with airframe OEMs, but Yost said the company realizes it needs to get past the first step, which is certifying and selling Cockpit 1 in the retrofit market. Universal, he said, has a number of business-jet customers lined up who have said they want to install Cockpit 1 in their aircraft as soon as it is available.

The terrain images of Cockpit 1 use topographical coloring similar to that of aviation sectional charts. Hills and mountains appear in shades of brown and green, while oceans and other large bodies of water are blue. Shading on the display as well as grid lines on the ground give the pilot a sense of movement in flight and height above terrain.

NASA’s SVS Concept

For the past few years NASA engineers have also been working on SVS, and in fact have flown the concept on several occasions in a variety of aircraft. Michael Lewis, director of the NASA Aviation Safety Program at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., said initial flight tests of an early version of SVS in 1999 proved the concept could be applied to civil aviation based on the current availability of technology, namely satellite navigation and sophisticated terrain databases.

“With GPS signals, pilots know exactly where they are,” Lewis explained. “Add super-accurate terrain databases and graphic displays and we can draw three-dimensional moving scenes that show pilots exactly what’s outside. The accidents that happen in poor visibility just don’t happen when pilots can see the terrain hazards outside.”

In October 2000 NASA engineers installed SVS software and hardware in the agency’s own Airborne Research Integrated Experiments Aircraft (Aries), a modified Boeing 757. During those flights a number of pilots evaluated display sizes and computer graphics to help determine which SVS configurations would be most effective in preventing accidents.

Pilots who have flown with SVS say larger displays are better than smaller ones and that crisper details give them more confidence. During some of NASA’s most recent SVS flights, one pilot, said Lewis, commented, “The terrain picture on the synthetic vision display is just terrific. I find myself forgetting that it’s not the real world I’m looking at.”