With G3000, Garmin brings touchscreens to flight deck

 - October 28, 2009, 12:32 PM

Garmin caused the biggest stir at last month’s NBAA Convention by unveiling the G3000 integrated avionics system, a follow-on to the G1000 cockpit that will change the way pilots fly by introducing touchscreen technology for accessing nearly all the functions normally controlled with myriad buttons and dials.

Intended for the upper echelon of the Part 23 business aircraft market, the G3000 cockpit adds a pair of 5.7-inch-diagonal touchscreen controllers below the main flight displays. The screens include desktop-like menu interfaces with icons that can be pushed to access most of the system’s features. Audio and visual feedback lets pilots know exactly how the system is responding to their inputs. The touchscreen unit, called the GTC 570, also incorporates conventional controls at the bottom of the display, including a volume control knob, map joystick and dual concentric knob for data entry.

Piper and Honda were the first to publicly commit to the G3000 system, saying at last month’s show in Orlando, Fla., that the baseline cockpit will fly in the PiperJet and HondaJet. Certification of the new avionics suite is targeted for the second half of 2011.

With the introduction of the G3000 system, Garmin is making a compelling argument for the usefulness of touchscreens in the cockpit. The company’s G1000 suite, introduced for the Cessna Citation Mustang in 2003 and flying today in thousands of light general aviation airplanes, includes as many as 80 buttons and knobs for performing flight-related tasks. High-end business aviation avionics systems from Honeywell and Rockwell Collins, meanwhile, rely heavily on the use of cursor-control devices. With the G3000 system, Garmin said it wanted to make the job of a single pilot flying a complex airplane easier and, by extension, safer.

To deal with turbulence, the G3000 touchscreens include large buttons that the pilots  must press and release before a particular function is activated. Icon animation helps users know how the system is responding to their input.

“We’ve gone to great lengths to make the G3000 simple to operate,” said Bill Stone, Garmin’s avionics product manager. “Pilots touch the information they want to change rather than using cursors. This makes it easy to enter information right the first time and helps decrease pilot workload.”

A recent demonstration of a prototype G3000 system at Garmin’s headquarters in Olathe, Kan., seemed to support the claim that designers have indeed found a better way for pilots to interact with avionics. The G3000’s touchscreen incorporates a variety of icons for performing flight management tasks, radio control, audio adjustment, synoptics and other functions that, when pressed, provide access to system pages arranged logically by phase of operation. Back and home buttons let pilots quickly retrace their steps or return to the main screen.

The simple user interface borrows from the experience Garmin has gained designing and selling millions of automotive GPS products. But unlike Garmin’s Nuvi GPS product line for cars, the G3000 touchscreen uses infrared-beam technology to track where a pilot is pressing on the display. The IR touchscreen offers the advantages of improved finger tracking and the ability to use the system with a gloved hand, which can’t be done with a Garmin automotive GPS receiver, Stone noted.

While professional pilots may be less than enamored of the G3000’s touchscreen icons, which some say look “cartoonish,” there’s no denying that the system is easy to use and represents a major improvement over the G1000’s interface architecture, particularly when it comes to inputting complex flight plans using rotary knobs. As for the icons, pilots had better get used to them: Garmin says the basic design will be incorporated in future aviation handheld products now under development. 

The G3000’s touchscreen controller is reminiscent of an Apple iPod Touch in that the system’s menus never go deeper than a few pages and the flick of a finger can be used to scroll through some of the screens. The icons are simple to understand and actually pretty fun to use. Fifteen minutes spent playing with the touchscreen was about all it took to gain a surprisingly thorough grasp of the G3000’s underlying logic. This should mean that the transition to the new cockpit will be a cinch for pilots flying G1000-equipped airplanes.

While Garmin has done a good job with the G3000’s touchscreen, eliminating most buttons and knobs inevitably has meant that some features are actually harder to access in the new system than the old. For example, the G1000 cockpit has a button labeled play that’s used to replay previous audio transmissions from ATC. In the G3000 system, the pilot must press two buttons and then scroll down the screen to access this feature. Still, once they’ve experienced the ease of inputting flight plans using the touchscreen, it’s a safe bet that most pilots will happily live with such tradeoffs.

The basic hardware behind the scenes in the G3000 system is based on technology first developed for the G1000 system, which in business aviation flies in the Mustang and Embraer’s Phenom 100 and 300 and is offered as a retrofit upgrade in King Airs. The G3000 system’s all new “extra-wide” primary and multifunction displays measure 14.1 inches diagonally, versus the G1000’s typical 10.4-inch screen size. The G3000 displays include a number of bezel-mounted soft keys, but, interestingly, the buttons on the MFD serve no function. Garmin included the soft keys on the MFD purely so that the displays would be interchangeable, meaning the same part number can be shipped to customers needing a replacement PFD or MFD.

The G3000’s LED-backlit displays incorporate technology that provides greatly improved dimming ratios as well as better retention of color sharpness as they age, Stone said. He added that the use of LED lighting in the G3000 system should about double the life of the displays.