A touch of simplicity in the cockpit

  • 03-Apr-2013 04:18 EDT
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Pilots can adjust views by touching Garmin’s interactive display panels.

Specialists who design human machine interfaces are reducing pilots’ cognitive workload with a concept used from early childhood. When they want to manipulate something, they reach out and touch it.

Controlling a pricey aircraft miles above the Earth is definitely not child’s play, but touch input sensors used with flat panel displays are making it simpler to manage flight activities. The combination of touch and liquid crystal displays is also reducing the area that pilots have to focus on. Screens can be programmed to make better use of limited cabin space, giving pilots different input during landings, takeoffs, and flight.

For example, Garmin expanded the capabilities of its GTN touch-screen line, adding support for weather radar, advanced ADS-B capabilities, and other tasks. The touch screen lets pilots adjust the tilt or sector scan by swiping their finger across the display.

They can also overlay the weather radar right on the moving map page, improving situational awareness. An additional benefit of using touch input is that the digital controls can evolve even after planes are in operation.

“The GTN series was designed with a growth-oriented architecture that allows for new technologies and expanded capabilities to be accommodated via software updates,” said Carl Wolf, Garmin’s Vice President of Aviation Sales and Marketing.

Digital controls also give pilots the flexibility to alter controls to suit current needs. The new Beechcraft King Air employs Rockwell Collins’ Pro Line Fusion touch screens on all flight displays. Pilots can alter the controls while gaining the focus that comes when controls and displays are in the same place.

“The incorporation of touch controls, along with traditional cursor controls, allows the crew to choose the best operation model for the task at hand, based on their preferences or the environmental conditions,” said Dave Gribble, Principal Systems Engineer at Rockwell Collins. “The use of touch on the flight displays breaks the traditional control/display paradigm, where avionics functions are controlled in one place and displayed in another.”

Touch sensitive displays are expanding in size as pilots look for even more features and functions, for both commercial and military applications.

In March,Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions unveiled a 21.5-in touch display aimed at military and law enforcement markets. The Skyquest can be customized with user-definable soft keys that let common tasks occur with a single keystroke.

The Curtiss-Wright display also highlights a growing trend toward higher resolution and LED backlighting. It provides native resolution of 1920 x 1080 while utilizing dual LED backlighting. LEDs provide high readability in daylight while letting pilots switch to a filtered mode when night vision goggles are being worn.

While much of the interest in controls centers on the changes wrought by flat panel displays, established controls aren’t totally disappearing.

“Conventional controls like knobs and buttons will always have a place in the cockpit. They are most effective where immediate or frequent access is required to a function at any time,” Gribble said.

Many observers feel there is little interest in two control techniques gaining popularity in automotive and consumer electronics, voice, and gesturing. Voice doesn’t have the recognition rates or vocabulary to make it useful in noisy cockpits. One concern is that if pilots must say specific commands, thinking of the proper command will take more effort than using manual controls.

Gesturing may work for gaming and television controls, but pilots often move too much to make it useful. That’s particularly true when planes are being buffeted, which often causes unintended arm movements.

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