Bringing Tech to the Cockpit

February 2020

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As consumer electronics introduce new, more intuitive ways to access data and control the world around us, aircraft crew members and maintainers expect to be able to use those same technologies—such as touchscreens, icons, searchable databases, autofill, and more—to simplify tasks in aviation.

“The pace of technology is accelerating rapidly,” said Pete Bunce, president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association at the 2019 Aviation Insurance Association conference. “We went to glass [flight decks] in the Cirrus right around 2003, and within a very short time, around five years, the only people who weren’t buying glass in their aircraft were the ones who just wanted to be traditional aviators flying around on round dials.”

Avionics manufacturers have been conducting human factors research for several decades in an effort to increase safety through streamlined control processes and avionics design. One effort being led by industry giants such as GAMA and Honeywell, as well as NASA and the FAA, is in simplified vehicle operations (SVO). With the additional aim of reversing the pilot shortage by initially making aircraft easier to fly, the SVO concept uses increased automation, artificial intelligence, and redundant systems to shift flying responsibilities from the human pilot to the aircraft itself.

“SVO is really about changing the whole modality of flying a vehicle and trying to bring it closer to driving a car, which the mass majority of people know how to do,” said Mike Ingram, v-p of cockpit systems at Honeywell Aerospace, during an interview with AIN. “Getting into an airplane today and seeing the glass cockpit can be very intimidating, and it takes a long time to learn. So we need to create controls that dramatically reduce the amount of complexity.”

Since SVO will require changes in both aircraft and pilot certification—the FAA is proposing writing a regulation to introduce a new simplified pilot certificate by 2036—implementation of this technology will continue to be incremental. In the meantime, avionics manufacturers lean on usability studies and human factors research to determine how to simplify cockpit design and procedures.

Honeywell’s ebook, Transforming Flight through Usability: A Better User Experience from Takeoff to Landing, lists a few of advances in flight decks based on human factors studies. These include placing critical information where it’s most easily viewed, using autosensing features to indicate when tasks are completed, incorporating graphical elements, and giving directions and assurances verbally.

Touchscreens, so pervasive in modern life—from ATMs to tablets—have slowly been making their way onto flight decks. After completing a human factors research contract on touchscreen technology for the FAA in 2014, Honeywell introduced its first integrated touchscreen controller on the Primus Epic for Gulfstream Symmetry flight deck, certified on the G500 in 2018. The Symmetry flight deck features 10 touchscreens in various sizes placed around the flight deck, not including the four Honeywell non-touchscreen multifunction displays.

The Honeywell research showed that touchscreens were generally faster and more intuitive than other input devices, although pilots made slightly more errors, especially in turbulent conditions and on overhead panels. To correct for this, the touchscreens used in the Symmetry panel use resistive technology, which means the user must press on the screen rather than simply touch, as is the case in consumer tablets. Also, finger grips around every touchscreen allow more hand stabilization during turbulence.

While pilots wait for touchscreen technology to become more prevalent in the flight deck, their tablets and smartphones become the more user-friendly extensions of the flight deck, from electronic flight bag apps to flight planning and backup navigation. Honeywell’s myGDC, Pilot Gateway and Direct Access apps are aimed at reducing pilot workload before, during, and after a flight.  

Providing access to Honeywell Global Data Center (GDC) services, the MyGDC iPad app simplifies pre-flight routines by aggregating important flight information such route of flight, digital SID/STAR and approach plates, graphical weather charts, detailed airport information, and Airport/Facility Directory pages, into customizable Trip Kits. Pilots can create and file flight plans; customize, email and download Trip Kits; access up-to-the minute weather updates and airspace information; and calculate fuel burn, estimated time en route, and weight and balance even when offline. A new mapping engine with release 3.7 allows multiple graphical overlays including route of flight, U.S. and international radars, turbulence, Special Use Airspace, and more.

In flight, the app also allows on-demand refresh for METAR, TAF and NOTAM information, plus winds aloft data. A sketch feature allows the pilot to create and autosave handwritten notes and drawings such as runway or frequency changes.

Honeywell provides two apps for pilots to access technical support for their avionics products: Pilot Gateway and Direct Access. The Pilot Gateway website (pilots.honeywell.com) and mobile app provides access to Honeywell training materials, technical publications, videos, and other resources for self-service support based on aircraft make, model, and system. Pilots can also use the app or pilots.honeywell.com website to submit questions or feedback on technical issues.

Direct Access links the pilot or maintainer to the Honeywell customer support network for troubleshooting or aircraft-on-ground (AOG) support through nearly any mobile device. Users can quickly locate the nearest Honeywell-authorized service center, obtain 24/7 AOG fast parts delivery support, and call Honeywell technical support engineers or mobile response teams. The “talk to a technical expert” feature directly links the user to a dedicated Honeywell representative for personalized technical support experience. 

Maintenance personnel also appreciate apps that simplify their processes. The Maintenance Advisor app allows maintainers to retrieve Fault History Database (FHDB) or Aircraft Condition Monitoring (ACM) files from the Honeywell Primus Epic/Apex avionics suites using an iPad and wireless connectivity. Included with a Honeywell Avionics Protection Plan contract, the app can be configured to the specs of an individual aircraft and allows maintainers to perform fault analysis through the iPad or a web application. Fault messages can be filtered by flight deck versus maintenance messages, by flight stages, or by ATA chapter and section.   

The Maintenance Advisor desktop app includes all of the features of the iPad app plus the ability to view faults across an entire fleet. Viewing fleet data can help maintainers to quickly identify fault trends or patterns that could save time and reduce maintenance costs.