The Evolution of Civil Aviation Displays

Synthetic, enhanced and combined vision systems, alongside the coming of age of touchscreens, are boosting the intuitive nature of today’s cockpits.

Cockpit displays, which serve as key sources of pilot situational awareness, are becoming more intuitive and easier to use. Technologies, often first used or envisioned in the military sector, will help to decrease pilot workload and increase safety in civil aviation.

Current or coming innovations include enhanced vision on the Head-Up Display (HUD), synthetic vision head-up and head-down displays, combined vision head-up and head-down displays, touchscreens, 3-D airport moving maps, and voice control. In future years, pilots could experience wearable displays, eye tracking and gesture control. Some systems could become smart enough to understand a navigational dilemma and display a solution. Meanwhile, improved development tools are decreasing time to market and flexible upgrades are emerging for older aircraft.

In a fairly short time, aviation has moved from maintenance-challenged electromechanical devices to Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) displays, and on to Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs). Lower-power, flexible Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) displays are probably not too far over the horizon.

Ten years ago “glass,” for the most part, was fairly new in the cockpit, recalls Wayne Plucker, director of North American aerospace and defense research and analysis firm Frost & Sullivan. The first iterations involved a lot of buttons and selections on multiple panels. Now, however, larger screens can display more information and the growing standardization of layouts makes it easier to transition from one cockpit to another.

Synthetic Vision

Synthetic vision — a technology that grew out of NASA and U.S. Air Force research in the 1970s and 1980s — was first certified by Honeywell in 2009 as part of the Primary Flight Display (PFD) on the Gulfstream PlaneView cockpit. These displays, which show the world outside the cockpit in bright daylight, use the terrain database of Honeywell’s Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS). Rockwell Collins, Garmin and other manufacturers have already fielded their versions of the technology.

Honeywell continues to work with the FAA and industry to implement landing “credits” for lower minimums using synthetic vision display technology. The company is doing flight tests for its synthetic vision system “and is seeing very, very good results,” says Jeff Merdich, vice president of cockpit systems with Honeywell Aerospace. In the near future, Honeywell expects civil aviation regulators to start allowing lower landing minimums for airplanes equipped with synthetic vision guidance systems, meaning the FAA could reduce the decision height at CAT I airports from 200 feet to 150 feet.

The next step is to provide synthetic vision from gate to gate, Merdich says, meaning throughout all phases of flight and taxi. This will come in the form of 3-D airport moving maps, which Honeywell will introduce on the Gulfstream G500/G600 flight deck, based on Honeywell’s Primus Epic integrated avionics suite.

The 3-D airport moving map will help pilots navigate taxiway systems in poor visibility conditions, where visual cues are reduced or obscured by precipitation or with snow on the ground. “The 3-D airport moving map integrates taxi navigation with the PFD [Primary Flight Display] and can display both egocentric and exocentric views of taxiways and enhanced runway markings,” Honeywell says. “It also aids the pilot [to] transition from flight mode to taxiing and vice versa.” There will be 715 airports available for both 2-D and 3-D airport moving maps when the product enters into service.

On the PFD, pilots will get airport surface information: a 3-D view of taxi to runway that shows taxiways and runways with identifiers, airport buildings, and the terrain around the airport. The synthetic vision “driving mode” will transition to the “flying mode” as the airplane starts to take off. The technology will become a standard or optional feature on Honeywell’s Primus Epic avionics suite.

Down the Road

The next step for augmented vision systems is combined vision, the integration of synthetic and Infrared (IR)-based enhanced vision on a head-up or head-down display conformally to the outside world. This would seem to be the best of both worlds. Synthetic vision is independent weather conditions, but relies on the underlying navigation solution and database information, while enhanced vision is dependent on sensor quality and, to some extent, on the weather outside. In wet snow and fog, for example, it does not perform well.

Dassault Aviation recently announced that its FalconEye HUD-based combined vision system has been certified by EASA and the FAA for the Falcon 2000S and LXS twinjet aircraft. The company expects certification soon on the new Falcon 8X ultra-long-range trijet. According to Dassault, FalconEye is the first HUD system to blend synthetic, database-driven terrain mapping and actual thermal and low-light camera images into a single view.

Honeywell plans to introduce combined vision technology in the next several years. Rockwell Collins currently provides HUD-based enhanced vision and synthetic vision capability, but pilots can activate one or the other, not both simultaneously in one integrated view. The company, however, is enthusiastic about the potential of combined vision and predicts its emergence into the air transport market within the next five years.

Thomas Global Systems’ TFD-8601 LCD avionics display on board a Rex aircraft.Photo courtesy of Thomas Global Systems.


Touchscreen technology is also becoming popular in civil aviation. Honeywell is currently rolling out touchscreens on the Gulfstream 500/600 and Rockwell Collins, on the 777X.

Pilots of the new Gulfstream airplanes will interface with the avionics suite via five touchscreen controllers, two of which are located on the pedestal between the pilot and copilot. Pilots can select flight management system functions, tune radios and even control cabin pressure, among other things.

Merdich says the touchscreens employ “good finger grip technology,” with exceptional stabilization in turbulence. The controllers require “some level of force” to trigger a function. Honeywell has tested the technology on a six-degrees-of-freedom, hydraulically driven “turbulence table” that can simulate turbulence events that have been measured and recorded in actual flights. The company has done studies with hundreds of pilots associated with efficiency, accuracy and fatigue issues in regard to touchscreens. The studies show there is a very strong improvement in factors such as efficiency, workload, and being able to navigate quickly while flying the aircraft, he says. Touch is a more intuitive and efficient way to interact with the displays and allows the pilot to get to more things quickly, he says.

Rockwell Collins is also introducing touchscreen technology to air transport on the Boeing 777X. The advantages of touch technology are the immediacy and direct input to the interactive display surface, says Craig Peterson, senior director of commercial systems marketing with Rockwell Collins. “I think it will go a long way to making the display surface more intuitive and easier to manipulate.”

777X displays are expected to incorporate both “single touch” and “multi-touch” capabilities. With a single-touch capability, a pilot could scroll a map, activate a menu pop-up, or operate an emulated keypad. Multi-touch, on the other hand, means that the captain and the first officer simultaneously can touch two different functions on their respective halves of a large surface. A future iteration of multi-touch could allow a pilot to use two fingers to zoom, pinch, rotate or pan an image.

Future Considerations

Another step for displays could be a “reversion mode” for navigation and flight input, Plucker says. For example, if the pilot is flying an Instrument Landing System (ILS) approach and the airport’s ILS system fails, the displays could revert to a default approach, such as Required Navigation Performance (RNP), tell the pilot what they’re doing, and kick out a new approach plate. That would be more helpful than displaying warnings in this phase of flight.

Plucker perceives industry desire to follow the Internet of Things (IoT) approach, in which everything speaks to everything else. The trick is to make sure the pilot understands what’s going on, he says. But if there are big duplex or triplex flight management computers in the background, there may be enough computing power to make these default reversions possible. Certification, however, would be a challenge because the reversions would have to be “absolutely predictable,” he adds.

Wearable cockpit technology is another possibility for civil aviation, Plucker says. Instead of head tracking and eye tracking via a helmet, pilots might be able to wear a headset or special glasses. Perhaps the pilot could look at a display and then select it by a voice command or button push. Such a technology could make a big difference in a single-pilot aircraft, he says. But there are many challenges and wearable technology won’t be making its appearance in civil aviation for at least 10 to 15 years, he says.

Displays in the Mitsubishi Regional Jet flight deckPhoto courtesy of Mitsubishi

Gesture control also might be a useful addition in combination with voice control, Plucker says. A pilot could point to a transponder, for example, and say, “select” and “1200” rather than dialing in the numbers. Radio frequency tuning could be another opportunity if gesture control is ever offered.

Display Development Tools

Developing displays is easier than it used to be, thanks to off-the-shelf tools. ANSYS’ model-based software development tools such as Safety-Critical Application Development Environment (SCADE) Display and SCADE Suite, for example, can accelerate the tasks of developing new cockpit displays or upgrading existing displays, especially for safety-critical applications, the company says.

SCADE is a modeling language that allows developers to express a design in the form of a graphical model, explains Tony Karam, ANSYS’ North American Systems business unit director. SCADE Display and SCADE Suite enable developers to create graphical elements and the embedded behavior logic of the display, respectively. Because the two tools can be integrated together, customers can perform co-simulation of the display symbology and logic, as well as co-code generation, improving development and testing efficiency and reducing costs. The tools also leverage a code generator qualified to DO-178C, which ensures that generated code complies with the design model, Karam says.

According to Karam, SCADE Display customers say that the tool — with the certified code generator and other features — saves them 40 to 50 percent of time and effort.

Customers have used SCADE Display to develop the cockpit display systems for both the Airbus A380 and the A400M aircraft. Northrop Grumman also used both SCADE Display and SCADE Suite to upgrade the cockpit of the U.S. Army’s UH-60L helicopter


Some operators are looking for a path from Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) displays to Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs). This underserved segment of the market, however, is getting a lift from Thomas Global Systems, the Australian company that made its name as the go-to resource for CRT support.

Thomas Global Systems offers a path from CRTs to LCDs. Its latest certified Electronic Flight Information System (EFIS) upgrade, the TFD-8601, is targeted primarily at business and regional aircraft operators. The TFD-8601, a 5 x 6 inch active matrix LCD, applies to a wide range of business and regional aircraft, such as the Saab 340, Embraer EMB 120, Dassault Falcon 20 and Falcon 50, Hawker 800, Bombardier CL-600, and Gulfstream Astra. The upgrade is based on the company’s Adaptive Display Architecture (ADA) processing platform.

Regional Express, a regional airline and the world’s largest operator of Saab 340 aircraft, was the launch partner for the TFD-8601, says Thomas Global Systems’ CEO, Angus Hutchinson. The company is working with Saab AB of Sweden, which is preparing a service bulletin for the TFD-8601 on the Saab 340. Thomas Global Systems also collaborated with Ameriflight, the largest U.S. Part 135 air cargo carrier, in achieving a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) for the TFD-8601 on the Embraer EMB 120, he says.

Maintenance techs can complete the upgrade in a few hours with no changes to existing cockpit panels or wiring and no crew retraining or changes to flight simulators, Hutchinson says. “Operators are increasingly aware of the benefits that our plug-and-play CRT-to-LCD displays generate, including elimination of CRT obsolescence risk, reduction in maintenance costs, and avoidance of full cockpit retrofits,” according to Hutchinson

Honeywell Aerospace's 3D airport moving mapPhoto courtesy of Honeywell Aerospace

Ask the Readers

We can tell that the cockpit display market is hot, not only from demand studies but from our own readers. According to a recent survey by Avionics, a large fraction of our respondents, 42.42 percent, feel the need to acquire new cockpit displays for their current fleets of aircraft in the next one to two years.

When we delved further into the question, we found that 36.36 percent of our respondents are interested in upgrading to Head-Up Display (HUD) technology in the next one to two years, while a quarter of the respondents told us they already have HUDs on their aircraft. In total, 85.71 percent of respondents have expressed a need to upgrade their displays, making HUDs a hot commodity.

Respondents’ concerns regarding cockpit upgrades suggest a careful balancing of bottom-line concerns against new-technology benefits. Reliability is the top concern for our respondents when it comes to upgrading their displays, with almost 80 percent citing this as an area of consideration. This is followed by the risk of obsolescence risk, which more than 40 percent of respondents cited as an area of concern. High-definition and weight savings came in neck-and-neck at just under 40 percent each, followed by display of traffic at more than 30 percent and display size at under 30 percent. Bringing up the rear was the concern for power output, at less than 10 percent. AVS

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