Thales Displays 2020-ready Business Jet Cockpit
Thales is here at the NBAA show (Booth No. N216) exhibiting its Avionics 2020 flight deck demonstrator, a human-machine interface designed to preserve pilots’ cognitive resources, thus enabling them to focus on what they are good at: making decisions. In other words, according to its promoters, this is a cockpit designed for airmanship. The development schedule of Avionics 2020 should suit a business jet program aiming at a 2020 entry into service.
During a visit to the Thales research-and-development center in Le Haillan, France, AIN met two of the Avionics 2020 designers. They believe Avionics 2020 is especially well suited to business aviation. “The idea of carrying out a mission is key to business aviation; therefore, business jet pilots often have to deal with changing requirements, sometimes in flight,” said Denis Bonnet, head of cockpit innovation. This makes the priorities, which hinge on completing the mission, different from those of an airline pilot, which are arriving on time and saving fuel.
From a designer’s perspective, it is easier to create a technology breakthrough in business aviation. “Without a need for cross-crew qualification, we don’t have to keep consistent with an existing flight deck,” Bonnet pointed out. Hence there is greater freedom for designers when it comes to a new human-machine interface. For example, thanks to extensive use of touch screens, Avionics 2020 makes planning a flight or changing a destination after departure more straightforward, he explained.
Sylvain Hourlier is Thales’s human factors senior expert and design authority. He and his team are endeavoring to preserve pilot resources, by giving the pilot better situational awareness while reducing the cognitive workload. Hourlier sees four design drivers.
“We help the pilot anticipate,” he began. This can be done via the “timeline,” a depiction of the flight’s successive events. On the timeline, the pilot can zoom in and see any upcoming changes, such as waypoints, altitude, aircraft configuration and so on.
Second, Hourlier explained, “We help the pilot have a clear image of the actions he chooses to delegate.” When assigning the autopilot to capture a heading, for example, the pursued heading will be shown in blue on the main display. This also helps answer the question, “What is the system doing and what is it going to do next?”–a question crews too often ask themselves.
The third design driver is schematization or systems depictions. “Let’s first avoid too complex views of the systems,” Hourlier said. When a problem arises, the pilot will first be given a broad picture to show where the issue is on the aircraft. Then, if desired, the pilot can–by a single touch input–enter a more detailed level of representation.
The fourth design driver has been to make learning as swift as possible. A new interaction must quickly become a routine, thus freeing up the pilot’s mind. Thales engineers have mimicked everyday life protocols, such as the pinch-to-zoom gesture that is familiar for smartphone owners. An easy protocol is preferable in a stress situation, Hourlier emphasized. This also translates into straightforward actions and views. When selecting an airport on the moving map, the pilot can drop the radio frequency into the list on the communications display. The pilot can see the radio frequency sliding through the displays, from the map to its position on the list. “This looks just nice,” he said, “but using cognitive continuity is also very powerful to save mental resources.”
“Intuitivity” can also be aided using depictions of power lever positions. The “eco climb” position is displayed above the horizon line and the “climb” position even higher, while the “idle” position is displayed below the horizon. This gives an immediate illustration of the consequence of moving the power levers. Moreover, as an input, these power lever positions can be seen on the left side of the display. Meanwhile, the output–vertical speed–is shown on the right. This layout makes the relationship between the input and the output obvious, Hourlier said.
From a technology standpoint, Thales claims to have brought cockpit touch screens to an “iPhone-like” user experience. For instance, the pilot can drag and drop an object continuously over flush displays. Installing touch screens so close one to another is challenging, as they tend to electromagnetically interfere, Bonnet said.
The Avionics 2020 flight deck is the outcome of extensive work by specialists; nevertheless, it is only a concept that airframers may feel free to customize. Some issues remain open. For instance, Thales engineers are still discussing whether it may be better to dramatically change the display’s layout to specifically address degraded conditions. Ultimately, a business jet flight deck featuring Avionics 2020 may look relatively different from the demonstrator, while adhering to the philosophical human factors underpinnings of the concept.