Honeywell Sings New Tune with Anthem Avionics

 - October 5, 2021, 4:05 PM
Honeywell's Anthem is always connected to the cloud and features multiple touchscreen displays and interfaces. (Photo: Honeywell)

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Honeywell unveiled its next-generation avionics platform, called Anthem, today at an event in New York City. It is the first “cloud-connected” avionics suite designed to serve all aviation segments from advanced/urban air mobility vehicles to light aircraft, business jets, and the largest air transport aircraft. The manufacturer plans to give demonstrations of the system next week at NBAA-BACE, although at a conference room at the Las Vegas Convention Center rather than at the Honeywell booth.

Vertical Aerospace and Lilium are the first aircraft manufacturers to announce the adoption of Anthem for their eVTOLs, the VA-X4 and Lilium Jet, respectively.

With full-time connectivity, Anthem gives pilots and operators many new capabilities, including the ability to create and upload a flight plan away from the aircraft, even if the aircraft is not powered on. Other features, such as customizing the layout of flight deck displays, can also be done remotely. The primary focus, however, is improving the user interface for pilots, and this means not just intuitive gesture control of touchscreens but also voice control, as well as retention of a cursor-control device for pilots who prefer that interface.

Anthem is not the next version of Honeywell’s foundational Epic avionics system, which is featured in turboprop singles (as Apex) through business jets such as large-cabin Gulfstreams and EASy-equipped Dassault Falcons. “This is a transformational change compared with Epic, not an incremental or growth version,” said Vipul Gupta, Honeywell Aerospace's v-p and general manager of avionics. “It’s drastically new, but we are reusing some software elements. Honeywell’s synthetic vision system is one of best out there, so we are reusing that to fit in this architecture.”

Epic was designed 20 years ago, he explained, and is very capable, but Anthem is focused on new interfaces and technology that Honeywell wanted to bring to flight decks. “It’s almost a 50 percent size and weight reduction compared with current hardware,” he said. “We looked at how we interact with our consumer devices and have taken that experience and brought it into the flight deck. When we look at touchscreens, it’s more user-friendly, more intuitive for the pilot, just like cell phones and tablets. That is our focus.”

In other words, Honeywell is finally saying goodbye to the traditional flight management system (FMS) control display unit (CDU), whose awkward design had more to do with accommodating hardware and software limitations than with making operation easy and intuitive for pilots. Of course, this transition away from FMS CDUs has already started with other avionics manufacturers and Honeywell—for example, Honeywell’s touchscreen controllers on the Gulfstream G500/G600 and upcoming G400, G700, and G800 models. On the Anthem flight deck, pilots will use the pilot interface display unit (PIDU) along with fully touchscreen instrument panel displays.

The PIDU has a nine-inch screen with a “smart scratchpad,” according to Gupta. Instead of having to switch from a flight planning or other FMS page and select a tuning page to change frequencies, on the PIDU the pilot simply inputs the frequency on the scratchpad and the system offers places where that frequency might be needed—for example, the active com radio—and the pilot selects that.

This isn’t too different from the way some avionics manufacturers are trending, but it’s a change for Honeywell and just one of the interface improvements. The scratchpad adds something that seems unique in avionics design: it also acts as a search bar for finding anything related to the avionics, so the user doesn't have to remember an arcane sequence of button pushes to find, say, the GPS status page; just type in the search term. Honeywell’s design is also different in that the PIDU is just another flight deck display that can show any information, the same as the panel displays, but that also incorporates pilot interface features.

“We don’t want to impose one [way of doing things],” he said. “We want to give them choices. This allows them to have their idea of what they want for their avionics.” Then again, aircraft manufacturers will also have more choices on flight deck design and layout for their aircraft. Generally, Gupta said, a small aircraft would have one or two PIDUs while a business jet could have up to four.

The story behind Anthem isn’t just about the user interface but also the architecture of the underlying hardware and software. Unlike today’s rack-based avionics, where each major function lives inside an electronic circuit board assembly that is slotted into racks in avionics closets or bays in larger aircraft, Anthem is embodied in a network-type architecture.

According to Honeywell, the problem with the Epic-style avionics is that they aren't scalable to smaller aircraft, at least not in a cost-effective way. This in part explains why Honeywell hasn’t been successful in penetrating the King Air market with its AeroVue flight deck, which may have been too costly to attract customers.

“What we can do with scale-down is limited,” Gupta explained. “You can’t scale down from big to little. Anthem is focused at the smallest, most constrained systems, then scaled up.” The architecture is based on distributed processing modules, each of which is the size of a book. If more processing power is needed, then more modules are added. “That’s why we can work across market segments,” he said.

For Honeywell, the big move into the next generation of avionics is Anthem’s full-time cloud-based connectivity. “We focused on the user experience and the user interface to reduce pilot workload,” Gupta said, “and brought connectivity to it.”

What that means is that Anthem’s Integrated Network Server Unit can use almost any method of connecting to the internet, including satcom, cellular, and—when within access range—Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. “We can provide relevant data to everyone, especially to the pilot while flying. This enables us to plan for the future,” he said.

For example, autonomous aircraft will need full-time connectivity for guidance and recovery, if something goes wrong. And future aircraft will likely incorporate some form of simplified vehicle operations requiring smaller flight crews, from urban air mobility vehicles to, eventually, cargo- and passenger-carrying aircraft.

“Epic has connectivity now,” Gupta said, “but does it have two-way communication with everything connected? We designed Anthem with connectivity in mind; it’s integral.”

Anthem builds on Epic’s feature set, with capabilities found in the most advanced business jets now. The idea is to make these available across the market segments so more pilots and operators can take advantage of all the safety features normally available only on larger aircraft, and this is possible because of the power of the distributed processing modules. These features include a 3D runway overrun alerting and awareness system, 3D airport moving maps, synthetic vision, an integrated navigation map, and a vertical situation display. But Anthem adds other interesting new features as well, such as 3D waypoints, which give the pilot much more information about a waypoint somewhere along the route, and the Supermap, which allows a user to overlay, say, an IFR en route chart across two displays and also manipulated that chart with touch gestures, for example, panning the entire chart on both displays, even though the displays are separate. 

Avionics manufacturers have long promised “open-architecture” designs that welcome other providers to supply new capabilities via software, but this hasn’t always panned out. With Anthem, Honeywell is promising to open its Secure Cockpit Browser to third-party developers, allowing applications developed by other companies to run in the Anthem environment.

One example cited by Honeywell is an app that finds weather camera feeds from the destination airport—via Anthem’s always-on connection to the internet. The pilot could opt for two side-by-side windows, one with the camera feed next to another with the destination radar picture, from satellite or ADS-B In weather, onboard weather radar, or even from the internet, because after all, Anthem is always connected. Another example is that a tablet application can run perfectly in Anthem, populating one of the displays and with the exact same functionality as on the tablet. ForeFlight is just one of the apps that Honeywell has demonstrated running on Anthem. “Having more of this sort of information at a pilot’s fingertips helps them make better decisions more often,” according to Honeywell.

Finally, Anthem integrates tightly with Honeywell Forge, the cloud-based fleet-management service, which helps operators and crews optimize routing before and in-flight to reduce fuel costs and also deal proactively with maintenance issues.

“When you combine unprecedented connectivity and new features with our brand-new, intuitive user interface that can be tailored to look and feel exactly how a pilot wants, you’ve got a truly game-changing system,” Gupta said. “It’s going to bring us closer to our shared industry goal of autonomous flight, and it won’t require high levels of pilot or operator skill to be safe.”