The Future of Avionics Is Now

 - December 23, 2019, 7:24 AM

There is no question where general aviation avionics development is heading: more intuitive interfaces, more touchscreens, capable new sensors, and improved automation. The result is going to cause pain for pilots who don’t like change but also deliver vast improvements in safety.

The idea is to keep pilots well in the loop so they not only have excellent situational awareness but also more time to spend on strategic planning and operating with high margins of safety. Gulfstream has taken a major step in this direction with the G500 and G600 Symmetry flight deck (and soon in the upcoming G700). Working with Honeywell, Gulfstream helped design touchscreen controllers and touchscreen systems control panels that will make a young smartphone-loving pilot feel right at home. At the same time, the new Symmetry flight management system (FMS) interface is far easier to understand compared to even the latest-generation keyboard-based FMSs. Of course this has been normal for years in Garmin, Avidyne, and other light GA avionics, and finally it has trickled up to jets. Touchscreen controls are even coming for airliners.

This is just a first step, however. For years, critics panned touchscreen displays for business jets and airliners, but that didn’t stop Collins Aerospace from designing touchscreens for its Pro Line Fusion system. The first one certified is a retrofit package for the Challenger 604, in partnership with Nextant, called the 604XT, and it obliterates the argument that touchscreen displays in a jet are too difficult to reach or too hard to manipulate in turbulence. Expect to see more fully touchscreen displays, not just controllers, in upcoming jets.

In fact, Collins is taking this concept even further, with the recent unveiling of its wide-area MFD-4820 display, which measures 8 by 20 inches and fills the space in front of a pilot. This display has built-in redundancy, with various areas able to continue running if one section goes dim. And it adds more screen real estate without taking up more external space. These will likely appear in military aircraft first, as these have already been early adopters of wide-screen technology.

If you look at a modern Airbus flight deck today, you might wonder why it is so far behind the technology curve, not even offering synthetic vision, a common and tremendously useful situational awareness tool that has been available for more than a decade. Now, however, avionics manufacturer Thales has unveiled the new PureFlyt next-generation FMS, which could help Airbus and other OEMs leap ahead in flight deck technology.

With abundant connectivity to the network-centric world, PureFlyt will help airlines reduce emissions by flying more efficiently, constantly updating flight plans based on real-time weather and airport constraints. PureFlyt incorporates 4D trajectory management and will add aircraft weight management to its capabilities. The first implementation is expected in 2024.

Flight displays aren’t the only area where avionics technology is advancing. Garmin has introduced a new emergency Autoland system that finally solves the puzzle of what to do if the pilot collapses and there are no other pilots on board. Autoland will either engage automatically if there is no response from the pilot, or a passenger can switch Autoland on by pushing a button. Once engaged, Autoland finds the nearest suitable airport, flies there, slows the airplane down, lowers flaps and landing gear, lands on the runway, stops, then shuts off the engine. Piper and Cirrus will be the first to certify Autoland, in the M600 and Vision Jet, respectively.

There are rapid advances in another avionics area; wearable head-up displays (HUDs) that make installing a HUD much simpler and less costly than traditional HUDs. Wearable HUDs also enjoy a nearly unlimited field of view, because the pilot is not constrained to looking through a fixed combiner glass mounted in the forward field of view. The Universal Avionics SkyLens HUD allows pilots to make FMS selections just by looking with the HUD at a waypoint, airport, or navaid and then choosing that using a selector button or manipulating the system via voice commands. Thales’s TopMax wearable HUD has already been certified in the ATR 72 and will enter service soon. HUDs are also coming to light aircraft, with MyGoFlight’s SkyDisplay HUD priced at an affordable $25,000.

To make HUDs even more useful, Saab has developed a new long-range sensor using passive millimeter wave technology developed by Vu Systems. By displaying the output from this sensor, a HUD can show the pilot the runway more than two miles away through fog, rain, and dust. This is far more distance than traditional infrared-based sensors, which are unable to penetrate through such obscurations.

Avionics capabilities are advancing rapidly, and although pundits speculate that this is all an effort to eliminate pilots from flight decks, there is no doubt that pilots are enjoying this technological renaissance, and the result is a significant improvement in safety.