Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Touch Screens Are Tested for Piloting Passenger Jets

With a swipe of his finger across its surface, Mr. Bonnet called up a list of European airports and selected Charles de Gaulle, near Paris. A vivid three-dimensional map appeared, representing a proposed flight plan, which he manipulated using the familiar pinch and zoom gestures used to operate smartphones and tablet computers. The development of touch-screen technology has enabled a similar revolutionary new approach to cockpit design.

By the end of the decade, says Thales, one of the world’s largest makers of aircraft cockpits, pilots could start dispensing with buttons, trackballs and keypads for performing many routine flying tasks in favor of icons that can be dragged and slide-to-scroll menus.

“The idea is to reduce as much as possible the number of buttons and control panels and replace them with virtualization,” said Mr. Bonnet, the head of cockpit innovation at Thales.

“We have reached such a high level of complexity today,” he said, with the flood of data that streams into cockpit computers from the plane’s systems and from the ground. “We want to create an interaction that is more intuitive and that reduces the workload, helping to keep the pilot focused on flying.”

Since the transition more than a generation ago from mechanical flight controls to fly-by-wire systems that use computers to control many aspects of flight, avionics engineers have sought to harness the power of electronics to make air travel safer and more efficient. While marketing touch screens for cockpits is a way to get plane makers and airlines to upgrade their systems, the migration toward touch screens is advanced by manufacturers as having the potential to enhance flight safety and improve efficiency.

Touch-screen advocates list several advantages over traditional cockpits, including the elimination of physical space constraints for instrument displays, since all the information the flight crew needs can be searched for and reached from the same set of screens. The displays can also be customized to present only the relevant data and input options that the pilot needs for a specific phase of the flight, be it takeoff, cruise or landing.

“It’s a bit like using your iPhone to find a pizza place,” said Mr. Bonnet of Thales. “You are very happy, once you have located it on your map, to be able to have the telephone number displayed as well — the right information, close to where you would expect it to be and not somewhere deep inside the user interface. The idea is to hide the complexity.”

Of course, avionics makers face challenges familiar to anyone who has tried to read a tablet outdoors on a sunny day or type a text message while being jostled in the back seat of a speeding taxi. “Sunlight readability is a big one that we are working to solve, because unlike a portable device, you can’t pick up a dashboard display to turn it” away from the sun, said Kenneth Snodgrass, director of technical sales at Honeywell International in Phoenix, another avionics maker. “A second is inadvertent touch. If you’re flying in bad weather, in turbulence, and you need to be able to change something, you have to be able to make sure you get it right.”

Touch screens first made their way into military jets two decades ago, when Thales integrated the technology into the cockpit of the French Rafale fighter. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter being developed by Lockheed Martin will also have instrument panels with touch-screen interfaces. But the concept is still relatively new to commercial jets.

Two years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States and its counterparts in other countries approved the use of so-called electronic flight bags. Pilots could replace reams of paper operating manuals, checklists and charts with digital versions loaded onto a tablet computer. Several airlines have embraced this paperless system.

“Touch screens have had to earn their way on board,” said Mr. Snodgrass. “It can’t just be a bunch of pretty colors. It has to be something the pilot can use.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 9, 2013

A picture on Saturday with an article about the development of touch screen controls for passenger jets carried an incorrect credit. The photograph of a touch screen was taken by Kathy Houser of Rockwell Collins; it was not provided by the Thales Group.

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