TopDeck avionics give S-76D a high-tech edge

 - February 18, 2008, 7:55 AM

In 2005 Sikorsky selected Thales’ TopDeck avionics suite to equip the S-76D. The helicopter is scheduled to make its first flight in the second quarter of this year and full certification remains on track for sometime next year, according to Phil Naybour, vice president and general manager of helicopter solutions at Thales. The French avionics maker is here at Heli-Expo (Booth No. 1531) to show precisely why Sikorsky chose the avionics system for the flagship S-76.

The first thing observers notice about the TopDeck system is that it is arranged in an uncluttered layout. Cursor control devices (CCDs) and alphanumeric key panels (one for each pilot) are located on the central pedestal. Thales claims TopDeck is the first helicopter avionics system to include a CCD that allows the crew to navigate across all the various pages that can be displayed on the central screen.

The French avionics house has built several noteworthy features into TopDeck. One of these is an interactive flight management system that Thales calls an IFM. It includes features such as flight planning and aircraft performance management. The ease with which a flight plan can be modified to take weather or terrain into account is impressive as well. Here, the CCDs come into play. A couple of clicks are all that is necessary to call up vital information on the digital maps. The ability to closely manage the aircraft’s route and performance, Naybour said, will help to reduce fuel burn, improving a helicopter’s environmental credentials.

Thales is breaking new ground by introducing cursor controls in a helicopter cockpit. At face value it isn’t such a revolutionary step. After all, millions of people use CCDs on a daily basis in the form of the humble computer mouse. The screens also use Windows-like architecture; again, something taken directly from the personal computer world. But according to John Beck, Thales TopDeck program manager for the S-76D, the CCD and the Windows-based system are designed to keep the pilots’ attention on flying the aircraft and to reduce their workload as much as possible.

Another TopDeck device borrowed from the computer realm is a USB input. The avionics suite includes a port into which a flash drive can be inserted to load a flight plan drafted on a ground-bound PC. Map updates and other data can also be loaded using the USB port. Thales can also upgrade TopDeck when new software is available. “We’ve built the platform to accept new software applications when we have a requirement to do so,” Beck said. Thales one day hopes to bring synthetic-vision capability to TopDeck.

While pilots might worry about an unlikely double failure of the CCD devices, Beck and his colleagues stated that all information can still be input and derived from the screens using the alphanumeric keyboards. Similarly, if all of the display screens fail, the aircraft has a backup primary flight display above the central screen that integrates all of the navigational displays, communications systems and primary flight instruments.

Naybour and his team would not reveal TopDeck’s price tag, although they said it ranges between 6 and 8 percent of the aircraft’s cost for the particular system that will be installed in the S-76D. The company is also keen to access the retrofit market for TopDeck and claims that installation is a relatively simple process.

The company believes that TopDeck will have applications for civil and military helicopter operators. It expects law enforcement, emergency medical services and offshore oil exploration operations to be some of the main applications for the equipment.