FronTier takes on market heavyweights

EBACE Convention News » 2009
May 6, 2009, 11:28 AM

CMC Electronics (Booth No. 371) is aiming to step up its position in the avionics market with a major investment in a new family of integrated avionics suites. Part 25-certified business aircraft will be the first applications for the new FronTier range of cockpit systems, with the first application expected to enter service before the end of 2013. If FronTier succeeds it will allow CMC to directly challenge the dominance of Honeywell and Rockwell Collins in this market segment, with their respective Primus Epic and Pro Line avionics suites.

In January, the company announced a C$149.4 million ($120 million) investment in research and development for FronTier over the next five years. This includes a C$52.3 million ($42 million) contribution from the Canadian government’s Innovation & Technology Office. CMC has identified the key goals of the new FronTier technology as reducing the cost of ownership and giving OEMs greater flexibility and control over the cockpit systems, as well as improving safety, reducing the environmental impact of aircraft and increasing airspace capacity.

According to Gérald Charland, CMC’s vice president for strategy and business development, head-up displays and advances in navigation systems will be the cornerstones of FronTier. “Situational awareness will be a key feature,” he told EBACE Convention News. “We want pilots flying head up all the time and, from 2013, head-up displays will be standard equipment.

“We also want to offer real open architecture to OEMs,” he added. “This doesn’t necessarily mean CMC equipment; it could also include integrating functions provided by other OEMs. We also want to achieve a fully paperless cockpit.”

CMC intends to build FronTier on its existing product portfolio, which includes GPS-based navigation systems, flight management systems (FMS), electronic flight information systems (EFIS), enhanced-vision systems (EVS) and electronic flight bags (EFB). Charland said the company has significant systems integration experience from its involvement in military programs, such as the full EFIS it provides for Hawker Beechcraft’s T6B military trainer.

“We are well positioned in situational awareness and not many companies can offer both EVS and EFBs,” he added. CMC is already working on a new sensor for its EVS, and Rockwell Collins has selected its 10-inch EFB display.

One of the main goals of the FronTier R&D effort will be to produce an Arinc 653-compliant core computer. CMC (Booth No. 371) already has experience in this field for smaller Part 23-certified aircraft.

CMC started discussions with OEMs about its FronTier plans in 2007. Charland said that the Canadian government’s backing for the R&D work was conditional on the program receiving backing from the market.

According to Charland, business aviation is the natural first target for FronTier products because the sector has a strong track record for being an early adopter of new cockpit technology. CMC will also be looking to win acceptance in the helicopter and regional airliner communities.

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 CMC has indicated that additional advanced technologies such as voice recognition will be evaluated during the development phase. FronTier will also be ready for NextGen air traffic management systems and processes. And the company is already working on a retrofit version.

For years, Montreal-based 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 the U.S. aerospace and defense conglomerate Esterline, 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 bypass 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 Honeywell and Rockwell Collins are introducing into their latest avionics systems. 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 its 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 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. CMC’s notable achievements in the last few years have included the selection of its Cockpit 4000 for the T-6B, introduction of the CMA-4000 flight management system and launch of the SureSight EVS family.

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