April 22, 2013
Credit: John Croft/AWST
In September 2012, Rockwell Collins gathered 18 airline, business aviation and owner-operator pilots in its Cedar Rapids hometown for some straight talk on the automation problems with today's integrated cockpits. What they learned could help the avionics company create next-generation flight decks that are safer and more mission-efficient.
“Mode surprises are a real problem today—they happen nearly daily,” says Geoff Shapiro, senior systems engineer in Rockwell Collins's advanced technology center. Shapiro had assembled the group to gather input on an advanced technology project to simplify the autopilot or “autoflight” modes that accompany flight management systems. A legacy airliner or business jet can have nearly 40 distinct autoflight modes for lateral, vertical or airspeed maneuvers.
“Pilots are busting altitudes. They have unintended stalls because the auto-throttle trips off and they don't know why,” Shapiro says. “The aircraft has a mind of its own and it's not really talking about why it's doing what it's doing.”
Mode confusion is one of many high-priority items on the to-do list of avionics makers like Rockwell Collins, Honeywell, Thales, Garmin and others that are striving to build cockpits of the future that will balance existing and emerging technologies such as fly-by-wire controls, broadband connectivity and increasingly complex automation.
From weather to traffic to pilot and aircraft performance and health, those flight decks will have unprecedented amounts of data that the avionics must transform into clear and concise information pilots or automation systems can use to take action—or perhaps not.
Pilots for their part will become more tightly coupled to their aircraft via a growing number of man-machine interfaces, known in human factors circles as “modalities.” Included are interactions with increasingly complex automation systems, larger displays complete with touchscreen capability, voice-recognition systems and visual systems that will soon be capable of “seeing” the real world through practically any weather. Farther out could be brain or heart activity monitors that pilots might use for taking actions.
“The next frontier is the connectivity of everything,” says Carl Esposito, vice president of marketing and product management at Honeywell Aerospace. “Most of the aviation systems we've designed to date have been relatively self-contained with little communication to the outside world.” He says the change is being driven by what we've come to expect in the consumer electronics market, where anyone with a smartphone and a connectivity plan can pull data from multiple sources and use applications to aggregate that data into useful information.