Happy Y2K12: Avionics Making Flying More Fun

 - January 2, 2012, 2:55 AM

If there is a bright spot in aviation, it has to be avionics, where development of new technologies is still accelerating.

The most fascinating change during the past year has been how consumer electronics in the form of Apple’s game-changing iPad have upended the avionics industry. Pilots are swapping their traditional electronic flight bags (EFBs) for iPads loaded with charts, moving-map displays and even airborne XM weather and synthetic vision.

But avionics makers aren’t sitting back and ignoring the rise of the iPad; rather, they are embracing the tablet computer and figuring out how to adopt its best features and integrate them–safely, of course–with their cockpit avionics products. Examples of this include Aspen Avionics’ Connected Panel system, which will allow pilots to use the iPad to adjust certain features on panel-mounted avionics, such as frequencies. Connected Panel will be protected from interfering with critical avionics functions, an important factor in the FAA certification process.

Esterline CMC, which is committed to further development of its EFBs, sees a future where the EFB and the iPad work together. The company is backing up this view with its new Tandem system, which will let pilots plan flights on a tablet computer, then transfer that data wirelessly to the EFB before takeoff. After the flight, pilots will be able to download data from the EFB back to the tablet.

In the view of Rockwell Collins engineers, the iPad can be a useful connection to scheduling and dispatching systems, especially now that more aircraft are flying with broadband air-to-ground connections.

Part of the reason that the iPad has developed so quickly as a platform for viewing aviation data is that its processing power and well-integrated and user-friendly design are far ahead of traditional avionics. Consumer electronics are not held to the same standards as avionics, which must meet regulatory standards.

Apple, for example, illustrated the difference recently when it upgraded the iPad’s iOS operating system to version 5.0, a move that resulted in many users losing important data and applications because version 5.0 automatically deleted data stored in a particular (temporary) storage area when the iPad’s memory neared the full mark. Software developers had to scramble to rewrite applications to stop using temporary storage on the iPad, although some, Jeppesen for example, had already done this and their apps weren’t affected by the new iOS.

Technology, even software-driven systems, moves far more slowly in aviation, because of the need for proper configuration control, extensive testing and failure-analysis. For example, a recent upgrade to Honeywell’s Primus Epic avionics suite in the Hawker 4000 saw the processor changed from an Intel Pentium II to a Pentium M. The Pentium II was phased out of personal computers in 1999 and the M was introduced in 2003.

Aviation takes a lot longer to catch up to the latest technology, at least in the certified world. And aviation products, especially avionics, cost orders-of-magnitude more than consumer electronics because of the certification requirements.

But pilots know what they want, and they are speaking in droves as they bring their iPads into cockpits. And avionics manufacturers are responding, not only by integrating the iPad into their products but also by developing stunning new avionics interfaces and simplified systems, which should make flying safer, more efficient and, hopefully, much more fun.