Aircraft Cockpit Control Upgrades in High Demand
New business, commercial and military aircraft have high-definition, display-centered designs, EFB integration and other software-based human-machine interface designs. But push button switches and hardwired controls might not be going anywhere any time soon.
In 2017, nine aircraft models are projected to enter service from OEMs including Airbus, Boeing, Embraer, Gulfstream, the Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China and United Aircraft Corp. All cockpits are designed around the use of primary and multifunction high-definition displays, flight management computer/tablet integration and forward and overhead switches, knobs, dials and other flight controls.
Those not buying the latest airframes are upgrading their existing aircraft cockpit panels, particularly with switches, annunciators and LED lighting.
Of Avionics readers surveyed — a majority being owners of fixed-wing aircraft — 75% stated that they have needs to acquire new cockpit switch products.
At Heli-Expo 2017 in Dallas and the annual Aircraft Electronics Assn. convention in New Orleans, suppliers of lighted cockpit controls, crew stations and integrated panels were showing switches and indicators focused on fulfilling portions of the FAA’s 2020 ADS-B mandate, optimizing size/weight/power and replacing incandescent bulbs with LED lighting. “A surprisingly high portion of the aircraft flying today has old incandescent lighting,” says Luma Technologies founder Bruce Maxwell. “A big problem it has is intermittency.”
During Heli-Expo, Luma said it was expanding its LED caution warning panels in the cockpits of the Bell Helicopter 206, 206L, 214ST and 412. Aside from being a replacement for incandescent lighting and having better compatibility with switch and annunciator applications, its panels are compatible with night-vision imaging systems, says Maxwell.
Fort Worth, Texas-based Applied Avionics has seen increased demand for its lighted push-button switches and indicators that serve an essential functionality in making legacy cockpits compliant with the 2020 mandate. The company has continually evolved its development of latching solid-state relays, digital-to-analog signal converters, Boolean logic gates, voltage sensors, electronic rotaries, diodes and terminal blocks into smaller and more compact, all-in-one components to help operators to reduce aircraft weight. “The biggest application everyone is talking about is the FAA’s mandate for the ADS-B Out system status,” says Applied Avionics’ SVP of sales, Craig Morgan.
In the past, Morgan says, any decoding of ARINC data to be displayed as information to the pilot would require a converter box and a separate annunciator. Now, all of that functionality can be embedded into a single, lighted, push-button switch or annunciator.
The new annunciator recently completed DO-160 environmental certification and will receive military certification. But OEMs and modification centers make up the largest portion of demand for Applied’s annunciators as they look to get cockpits into compliance with the equipage mandate.
“Listening to our customers led to our next innovation,” said Morgan, describing how the company recently introduced a single-bit, single-label ARINC 429 to discrete signal converter directly inside of the switch and annunciator.
While trying to satisfy a unique requirement in which a customer wanted to be able to have pilots push a button to cancel the use of an intercom system in the rear of a Leonardo helicopter, Applied pursued including a latching relay inside the switch. That led to the creation of the company’s Nexus logic line, which includes nine different electronic components that can be placed inside a switch. “With our NEXSYS LOGIC component technology, we can deliver tailored avionics system solutions directly inside of our VIVISUN switch. Compared to custom PC cards or single-function hardware, our solutions offer faster delivery, a simpler certification process and a reduced bill of materials,” said Morgan.
Other companies are also positioning new panel annunciators and switches around the ADS-B mandate. Esterline introduced its 389-series 5/8-inch cockpit annunciators for ADS-B Out equipment installations, a new addition to its existing Korry product line. The 389 annunciators use high-brightness LEDs, are mechanically interchangeable with standard 5/8-inch switches and can be customized, such as for night-vision imaging system installations.
Switch-controlled audio-receive cockpit functionality is also being upgraded, especially by Jupiter Avionics, an airborne audio control equipment manufacturer and Transport Canada design approval organization. It has released more than 30 new versions of its remote audio controllers, USB charging ports, relay switches and audio amplifiers at AEA conventions over the last six years.
According to Steve Brunsden, VP of business development at Jupiter Avionics, the majority of demand the company sees for new switch-controlled functionality comes for law enforcement-operated helicopters featuring crew stations. “In a working helicopter that’s flying in difficult conditions — for example at night flying IFR over a city — being able to control audio volumes or even certain types of cockpit lighting without the pilot taking his eyes off where he’s going, having tactical feedback from switches is more reliable than remembering where to swipe or tap a screen correctly.”
When considering the acquisition of new cockpit switches or other human-machine interface technology, the leading response from Avionics readers was for the purpose of adding new communication, navigation or surveillance functionality. Within most of the new airframes entering into service, new functionality is increasingly controlled by automated functionality by pilot inputs and by touchscreen interfaces. For example, the Gulfstream G500, scheduled to enter service later this year, features 10 touchscreen controllers that can act as a radio, display flight plans and perform systems checks.
On the 737 Max, also set to enter service this year, Boeing and Rockwell Collins worked to replace, revise and relocate 23 displays and controls. The Max design reduces the six-display configuration of the 737 NG to four 15.1-inch liquid crystal displays. There are separate switches and functions in knobs that have either been relocated or incorporated into the displays. Those changes were made to accommodate the four large-screen displays in that smaller cockpit. Boeing’s 777X, with first deliveries in 2020, will be the first commercial airliner to feature touchscreen functionality on all five flight deck displays.
“Anything can be trained into a pilot over time,” said Marc Himelhoch, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot now type-rated to fly Airbus A320s and 737s for a major U.S. airline. “We can adapt to a future cockpit with touchscreen displays. Right now you have a crossbreed of generations of airline pilots who grew up before a lot of automation, with a lot of round-dial experience, and a generation of pilots who know nothing other than automation and glass cockpit.”
Himelhoch, who authored “Cockpit to Cockpit” to give pilots a detailed guide for transitioning from military to airline flying, considers himself a crossbreed between the two generations. He says he has no problem going to touchscreens, but there are caveats. “I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to go to touchscreen, but as we know, anything electronic can lock up. Screens disappear. If you lose those and the ability to use that touchscreen function, you need a back-up way to set those parameters via the dials and push buttons that we’re using now,” he said.
Several industry research initiatives are looking at improving human-machine interface setups in new cockpits. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s aircrew labor in cockpit automation system (ALIAS) program is developing a tailorable, drop-in, removable kit that supports pilots by handling routine or procedural tasks. Using software with open interfaces, ALIAS is specifically looking at what tasks (such as checklist procedures) and safety protocols (like human inputs controlling engine status updates, lights, switches and levers)can be performed autonomously. Pilots on ALIAS demonstration flights can use a tablet and voice commands to control certain functions, reducing workload to strictly focus on command and control.
Manufacturers of new cockpit setups are responding to pilot demand for evolving CNS capabilities with a focus on simplicity. Sandel Avionics, which first unveiled its Avilon flight deck as a retrofit for the King Air at NBAA 2015, is undergoing certification for the Avilon and had it on display at AEA 2017. A big focus with Avilon ($175,000 installed) is its human machine interface, says Steve Fulton, Sandel’s VP of sales and marketing.
“Pilots today naturally expect touchscreen capability in cockpits, especially since the introduction of the iPad and iPhone,” says Fulton, who is a pilot and well known for pioneering Alaska Airlines’ Required Navigation Performance RNAV procedure. “You don’t want to overdo touch. There are situations where you want to have key functions that are knobs [such as in turbulence]. We have key functions here that you can control with a knob that you can also control with touch.”
Although the automation going into today’s cockpits is useful, Himelhoch says pilots must remember that their tactical flying skills supersede any reliance upon automation. “There is a steep learning curve to automation. It is difficult for newer pilots to initially get comfortable with or learn it, but once they do newer pilots are using it in the wrong way. Automation is meant to lower your workload in the cockpit. It’s meant to be able to do things in a safer manner.” AVS