Thales studies one-display flight deck

 - May 25, 2010, 9:48 AM

Thales is leading a research project toward what might be the ultimate in avionics displays–a single-display flight deck. Envisioned are curved surfaces, multi-touch screens and enhanced configuration flexibility. The French avionics specialist and its research partners want to create a more intuitive, pilot-centered man-machine interface. The project–known as Odicis (for “one display for a cockpit interactive solution”)–is expected to produce a proof-of-concept cockpit in about a year.

The research engineers want to keep some interfaces–such as trackball cursor-control devices– that are found in recent-production cockpits. “We will complement them with multi-touch zones,” project coordinator Loïc Bécouarn told AIN. Making touchscreens that can be operated effectively in turbulence requires a lot of testing, he acknowledged. For example, the size of the soft buttons and the ergonomics could be modified so as to retain controllability of the display in turbulence.

Above all, Bécouarn and his team will endeavor to create interfaces in Odicis from a clean sheet of paper. “We have to seek out what is operable, intuitive and easy to use,” he said. He believes that a single display provides more scope for the company to focus on and provide for the pilot’s needs.

Thales has high expectations that by providing a “more natural” way of showing information, its single-display cockpit will improve safety. First, the full surface area of the display will be used, which should benefit critical phases such as approach. Odicis is a “task-oriented” cockpit that will split the workload more effectively between the pilot flying and the pilot not flying.

Because it will be completely reconfigurable for each phase of flight, the display “opens a field of possibilities to optimize how to dispatch functions,” said Bécouarn. The displayed information could also vary depending on what the flight crew deems most practical. Guillaume Lapeyronnie, head of advanced cockpit studies, said pilots are interested in flexibility but want it to be “moderated.” They want to keep critical information in their primary field of vision, he added.

Thales views the project as a timely way to address future airspace plans, such as the U.S. NextGen and Europe’s Sesar, which will likely call for 4-D trajectories, airport navigation systems, synthetic vision and new mission management modes. The integration of these new applications on current cockpit displays would saturate the crew with information, and Thales’ research engineers contend that their large, highly flexible information display would present the required information in an easy-to-digest manner.

“The most mature technology for such a single-display cockpit is rear projection,” Bécouarn noted. Thales considered OLEDs but concluded that they will not be mature enough for aviation until 2020. Currently, the main issue with OLEDs is image persistence after a few hundred hours of use. LCDs could be suitable if display mating improves.

Rear projection uses several projection units, depending on the size of the cockpit. While a business jet would use “a few,” a widebody airliner could use “up to a dozen.” The number of units also provides redundancy.

A single-display unit gives the airframer flexibility in terms of design. The “free format” concept means that the aircraft designer does not have to fit existing displays into a cockpit, Bécouarn emphasized. Rather, the display fits the cockpit exactly. In terms of power consumption, Thales’ goal is not to exceed the appetites of new-generation LCD-based avionics suites.

Lapeyronnie emphasized that Odicis is about conceptual study and technical feasibility. “What value can it bring? Is there any show stopper? That’s what we want to understand,” he said. The demonstrator, scheduled to be ready for tests in the middle of next year, will provide a technology readiness level (TRL) of between 3 and 4. This means “laboratory validation” of basic performance and compliance with safety requirements.

The research project started in May last year and will run for two-and-a-half years at a cost of E5.61 million ($8.6 million) under the European Commission’s seventh framework program.