CMC planning Pro Line, Epic challenger

 - January 27, 2009, 5:42 AM

In the next few years, CMC Electronics, Canada’s largest avionics maker and an important player in a number of niche markets, plans to develop an integrated avionics system for business jets that will pit the company directly against industry heavyweights Honeywell and Rockwell Collins. 

Backed by Canadian government funding, Montreal-based CMC Electronics announced plans last month to develop the FronTier avionics system. The company said it will spend nearly $150 million for research and development including $52.3 million in public funding. The effort is aimed at successful entry into service of the avionics system in a production Part 25 business jet by 2013, according to CMC. Canada’s Innovation & Technology Office will kick in the additional funding over the five-year R&D period.

“We will be aiming at reducing the cost of aircraft ownership, improving safety, increasing capacity and reducing the environmental impact of aircraft operations,” said CMC Electronics president and CEO Jean-Pierre Mortreux. The FronTier avionics system is intended to serve a variety of applications, including installation as the baseline cockpit in turbine helicopters, midsize to ultra-long-range business jets and airliners, a spokesman told AIN. He added that discussions are already under way with several OEMs expressing interest in the FronTier cockpit.

The development of an all-new integrated avionics system for large business jets is a bold but risky move by CMC Electronics into an intensely competitive market that has been dominated for years by Honeywell with its Primus Epic cockpit and Rockwell Collins with the Pro Line 21 avionics suite. But it reflects the company’s ambition to grow beyond stand-alone systems such as flight management computers and GPS receivers to offer a full stable of avionics products bundled into a single package.
Artist renderings of FronTier show a layout reminiscent of the Dassault EASy (enhanced avionics system) cockpit. A typical FronTier configuration will incorporate four 14-inch or larger displays, consisting of two primary flight displays flanking two tiered multifunction displays. Cursor control devices are currently planned, although the spokesman said additional advanced technologies such as voice recognition “will be evaluated during the development phase.” FronTier will also be NextGen ready, he said, and an advanced-vision system–including head-up displays, as well as enhanced- and synthetic-vision systems–and electronic flight bags “will be an integral part of the cockpit.” A retrofit version of FronTier is also in the works, CMC said.

For years, CMC had remained content to sell individual components, but more recently it has explored the market for integrated systems for the military helicopter and jet trainer markets. Now a subsidiary of Esterline, an aerospace and defense conglomerate based in Bellevue, Wash., there is little doubt that CMC possesses the technological know-how to bring an integrated cockpit to market. The major hurdle will be in convincing an OEM partner to pass over Honeywell or Rockwell Collins and take a chance on a new market entrant. If nothing else, the launch of FronTier demonstrates that the industry remains committed to making technology investments despite the economy’s current troubles.

Perhaps the most daunting challenge for CMC Electronics will be matching
or exceeding the level of technology that is being introduced into the latest avionics systems from Honeywell and Rockwell Collins. Honeywell has already certified a synthetic-vision system as part of the PlaneView cockpit in large-cabin Gulfstreams and is hard at work on a similar upgrade for the Dassault EASy cockpit. Rockwell Collins has introduced the Pro Line Fusion avionics system, a follow-on to Pro Line 21 that will fuse infrared enhanced and computer-generated synthetic views on a single display. If FronTier is perceived as technologically inferior to either competitor’s offerings CMC will likely have a difficult time finding an OEM that is willing to commit to the system.

CMC Electronics has an interesting lineage that traces back more than 100 years to the original Canadian Marconi wireless telegraph company. Its first aerospace products emerged in the 1950s with the development of Doppler radars. The company sharpened its aviation focus throughout the 1960s and 1970s, expanding its product portfolio into aircraft navigation, monitoring and display systems, tactical radio communications and radar systems. The company was renamed CMC Electronics in 2001 and bought by Esterline in March 2007. Notable achievements in the last few years have included the selection of CMC’s Cockpit 4000 by Hawker Beechcraft for the T-6B military trainer, introduction of the CMA-4000 flight management system and launch of the SureSight line of enhanced-vision systems.