During the development of a new flight management system (FMS) that lives solely as software in a Universal Avionics flight deck avionics system, the company’s leaders realized that it also needed an equally innovative way for pilots to interface with the new FMS.
“We didn’t want to develop a traditional touch CDU [control-display unit] like our competitors,” said Dror Yahav, CEO of Universal Avionics Systems Corporation (UASC). “We wanted something different, innovative, that would significantly change the way pilots use FMS.”
There was an obstacle to developing a new interface, however, something that is typical at large companies: important decisions are made by top executives and sometimes these decisions are based on faulty ideas about the best way to solve a problem, with little or no input from employees who have a deep understanding of the product. What if these employees’ ideas could drive a new solution? “There are many things you can do if you leverage the know-how in the company,” Yahav explained.
The result of this thinking was the Universal Grand Challenge, which was launched with the goal of allowing engineers and other employees to get creative and speed up development of a new interface for the new ClearVision i-FMS.
The challenge was to fill in a missing piece in the i-FMS interface. UASC engineers had built in the ability to control parts of the FMS using the SkyLens head-wearable display, which is like a head-up display, but easier to install and with a nearly unlimited field of view. Pilots can already select waypoints and do other simple FMS-related actions by eyeballing the waypoint in the SkyLens display then clicking on the waypoint; this is an augmented reality-type of approach. But there are other FMS activities, day-to-day functions that need more interaction, such as tuning radios, commanding mode changes, setting up approaches, etc., and this was the interface problem that the Universal Grand Challenge was designed to solve.
The challenge was available at six different company sites, four in the U.S. and two international, and was launched on May 1. There were two phases to the challenge. In the first, employees had to set up development groups and come up with ideas. In the second phase, UASC leaders selected two of the groups’ solutions to fund, and they were then given five weeks to do rapid prototyping and then present a working solution to attendees and others at a UASC customer conference held in the first week of July. The best solution would be selected as the winner and would go into production.
The ground rules required that each team contain not only engineers but also business development or sales experts. The groups had to select a leader, who could not be a manager. “We wanted to see who is becoming our next-gen leaders,” Yahav explained. “We decided to exclude all levels of management from this process. This worked very well. If we had a manager on the teams, then automatically everybody would have deferred to him.”
More than 140 employees registered for the Grand Challenge, forming 14 groups of 10 people each. The initial proposals were all done online—only three weeks were available for this phase—and these were judged by a committee of UASC managers, which included Yahav, but none of whom were involved in any of the groups. The committee selected the top two proposals, and the groups were each given $1,000 to fund their prototypes and five weeks to make them work in time for the user conference. “They worked day and night, they were so excited,” he said.
At the conference, everyone who tried the prototypes was asked to fill out a form and share their impressions of the interface, and this was a big part of selecting the winner. The winning group is here at NBAA-BACE and explaining how their solution works (Booth C11117).
The solution that won the Grand Challenge uses voice recognition, but it does this in a unique fashion by incorporating artificial intelligence. “The reason is because we find that this device can serve pilots with different accents,” said Yahav. “Sometimes typical voice recognition can’t recognize [speech], especially foreigners [speaking English]. We enabled a machine-learning capability that every pilot can train in five to 10 minutes.” He further explained that a “personality module” in the system learns as the pilot flies and uses the system, continuously improving the recognition rate.
There is another aspect to the winning solution that makes it work even better, by eliminating the need for the pilot to look at a CDU to see what they have selected, whether by voice, finger, or other means. So the UASC team adapted short-wave radar technology to map movements, allowing the pilot to use gestures. The gesture-recognition element, built into a flight deck display, can see the pilot with enough fidelity to allow the pilot to tap out a new frequency on an invisible keyboard or tune a frequency by turning an invisible knob or select the next waypoint. To help the system know when the pilot is about to gesture, the pilot will need to warn by voice that “I’m about to tell you something.” No matter what or how the pilot chooses some avionics change, he or she will still need to confirm the change.
“We found this group’s solution very creative,” Yahav said. “This whole interface is intuitive and easy to operate.”
Of course, the Grand Challenge proved beneficial for more than the winning team. For those that didn’t win, he said, “We provided a detailed explanation of why they were not selected. Maybe the time to market was too much. Or it was too costly and we can’t sell it at the right price range. They worked very hard, and we need to respect them. Providing feedback is a show of respect.”
While the idea for the Universal Grand Challenge was Yahav’s—and derived from the DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous vehicles—he knew early on that managers needed to step back and turn UASC’s smart employees loose to explore new ideas. “We as managers need to be humble and not the smartest people in the room,” he said. “We needed to find a way to get their brains and engagement, to be a better company. The Grand Challenge was the implementation of that concept.”
For a relatively small investment of money, the company came out way ahead. “We gained a lot from this exercise,” Yahav said. “Regardless of who wins, we all won. We came up with ideas that we can incorporate in other product lines. And we learned to know each other better. It was very encouraging for the whole company.”
Another positive result was the identification of future leaders, while also helping them meet their customers and new colleagues at the user conference. “Typically, they don’t get exposure to such customers,” he said. “We threw them into the water and they did very well. I enjoyed a lot to look at those young people start to gain confidence and experience. They are very authentic, young, excited, and engaged.”
Yahav is excited about new opportunities for UASC and its parent company Elbit. “This crowdsourcing or way of working together, we can see it in young companies, in the internet. We don’t see [that] in aerospace, which is more traditional and sometimes stuck in its ways. Bringing that spirit to aerospace is going to be great. We can be young and fresh and bring ideas.”
UASC is on the cusp of interesting new developments. “I think it’s underestimating us by saying it’s a new company,” Yahav said. Universal specializes in manufacturing displays and FMSs, but now it is developing a new software-based FMS, head-mounted displays with new enhanced vision systems and interactive controls, and the Grand Challenge-inspired interface.
“A year and a half ago none of this existed,” he said. “There is a lot of excitement about what we’re going to do and where we’re going. A lot of this takes time, but we have a good feeling, we’re going in the right direction, we’re more competitive, and we can take more risks.”