By the end of the decade, says the French electronics group 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.
Of course, avionics makers face two main challenges: “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. “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.”
The technology faces some practical limitations. “There are certain things in the cockpit that may always have to have knobs that you can touch — things like landing gear controls, throttles, the autopilot engage or disengage,” said Mr. Snodgrass of Honeywell.
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.
2 years ago, the FAA approved the use of so-called electronic flight bags, that will be available in the A350 XWB. Pilots could replace reams of paper operating manuals, checklists and charts with digital versions loaded onto a tablet computer. Rockwell Collins’ information management system hosts data to the electronic flight bag, helping pilots get easy and instant access to flight plans, aircraft manuals and maps.
Some avionics makers are thinking beyond the iPhone screen to other new consumer technologies like Google Glass-like lenses that the pilots can wear. Some voice-activated functions are also being studied.
Mr. Bonnet of Thales said putting touch screens into passenger jets built by Boeing and Airbus, the world’s biggest manufacturers, is inevitable. But the planes those companies now have in development, including the Airbus A350 XWB, use conventional cockpit interfaces, making such a switch unlikely for at least a decade.
Based on the article “Touch Screens Are Tested for Piloting Passenger Jets” published in The New York Times