Interview with Victor Valente, Vice President, Business and General Aviation, Honeywell
Q: With the onward march of the glass cabin we are in a very different world from the old analogue instruments that used to crowd the flight deck. Honeywell has been at the centre of much of that change. What has it been like?
A: If we cast our minds back 10 to 15 years we go back to a world where the cockpit was made up of individual black boxes, each performing a specific function. As an avionics supplier you competed on reputation and by reducing the weight of each individual box while extending its reliability and accuracy. But the cockpit of that era was a real pain. When you wanted to upgrade a box or modify or add functionality, you had to remove a physical piece of hardware. In the late 1990s Honeywell started work on our Epic Avionics suite which was very different from the collection of boxes, since it was the first integrated avionics suite. Instead of federated boxes we concentrated the system into avionics racks, each performing functions that could be shared. This gave us much more versatility. We could take a systems approach to driving the radar, the displays, the radio, all from the central rack, and it was much easier to provide duplicate racks for failsafe systems for certification purposes. This was a major transition, even though we were still in some respects in the analogue instrumentation world. It gave us a very stable avionics platform that was able to multi-task across various systems and functions, and it could be grown and enhanced in a much easier way than by stripping physical black boxes out of the cabin and replacing and rewiring them through the aircraft. Getting out of that messy world was a huge advantage. We could add more input and output cards to the avionics rack, or more power cards, and you weren’t having to disturb the aircraft interior to do so.
Q: How did the move from federated boxes to integrated avionics play in the business aviation world?
A: We were the first to introduce integrated avionics in the early 2000s. Gulfstream and Embraer were among the early adopters, with Embraer taking EPIC for its 170 and 190 regional jets. Dassault, Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft also adopted the system. We then adapted EPIC to make it a cost-effective system for lighter executive aircraft, and we had Pilatus as a customer for the Pilatus PC12.
Q: What was the transition from building out the concept to having certified systems being used daily in aircraft like?
A: It was eventful! Things took longer to certify than we had anticipated and required various iterations and integrations to work the bugs out of the system. However, that is not unusual for such a radical departure from traditional practice. When you think of it, both ourselves and the certification authorities were breaking new ground. At the same time, there were significant new factors for avionics to take account of. The Future Air Navigation System (FANS) added a number of new features and it wasn’t the only transformation the industry was going through. However, this is where the integrated avionics approach of EPIC demonstrated its power. We were able to add capabilities with relatively little perturbation of the base platforms. Synthetic vision is another transformation which benefitted hugely from this approach. Adding synthetic vision via huge terrain data sets is a massive change in pilot situational awareness but it is simply a software program, easily loaded. So you have a tremendous change in capability being condensed down into just a software upgrade, which is a deceptively simple way of looking at a revolutionary change in the cockpit.
I was responsible for the certification of EPIC on the Embraer 170 and 190 aircraft. One of the truly remarkable things was that despite the fact that we had been working on EPIC for six years, with a team of hundreds of engineers, when I flew down to Brazil to deliver the software, all I had was a stack of twelve CDs.
Q: The business aviation market divides into light, medium and heavy jets, with turboprops overlapping the light jet category. Historically, aviation has taken a horses for courses approach there, with lower cost, functionally ‘lighter’ systems at the lower end. What has Honeywell’s approach been there?
A: You need to segment the avionics market in various ways. In the general aviation market we are re-launching our Bendix King product line. The big improvement for light aircraft, such as cylinder props and small turboprops up to larger turboprops, is WAAS, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) program which adds further accuracy to GPS satellite positioning to provide pilots with much more precise position information and approach information. At present WAAS is only available on the continental USA, since it consists of multiple ground reference stations located right across the US. There are two master stations on the East and West Coast, and they collect data from the reference stations and use it to clean up the GPS signal to remove errors caused by a variety of problems, from disturbances of the ionosphere to satellite orbit errors. What all this boils down to is that a WAAS-enabled display in the cockpit of a light aircraft gives the pilot a highly accurate view of where they are relative to where they want to go. Other regions of the world are developing their own solutions. Europe has the Euro Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS) for example, and Japan has the Multi-Functional Satellite Augmentation System. So avionics is getting very good for light aircraft, but this is very different to the huge terrain datasets and synthetic vision of top-of-the-range avionics systems. A fully integrated avionics system, by way of contrast, requires significant infrastructure and has a great deal of development and design cost behind it; that would simply not be appropriate on a Cessna 182 or a Beechcraft Bonanza. There you need less sophisticated equipment, with a much lower price tag, that relies on fewer components. Garmin, Universal and Avidine play in that space and our Bendix King range is there as well.
A fully integrated avionics system, by way of contrast, requires significant infrastructure and has a great deal of development and design cost behind it
By way of contrast, EPIC and APEX are very different. We took a great deal of trouble to adapt our integrated avionics approach to the lower end of the business aviation market, and they have been very successfully taken up by the likes of the Pilatus PC12 and PC24. The big advantage that our APEX system brings to this specific market space is that in concept and design it is very similar to EPIC, but it allows us to provide a very attractive price point and the operational requirements demanded by that market. Importantly, it offers synthetic vision capabilities just as EPIC does, using the same terrain database that we have in EPIC, certified to DO200A, which attests to the fidelity of that terrain database. We have close to a billion hours of operational experience across the spectrum of business aviation for our avionics products and APEX is able to rely on that level of integrity. It was announced for the Pilatus PC24 last year. Where we see that particular roadmap going is towards getting credit for the accuracy of the database by having the authorities grant a lower landing minima for the system. We are working towards a 150 feet minima decision, as opposed to the 200 feet of visual contact with the runway that is required at present. Giving pilots an extra 50 feet of allowable minima will avoid a number of aborted landings, saving fuel and time while maintaining strict standards of aircraft safety. We think we will achieve this with the synthetic vision system we have in place at the moment, and this is without the addition of any real-time cameras or infrared feeds to integrate real-time eternal feeds with synthetic vision. Clearly the end goal that we are driving towards here is the ability to do away with minima altogether, so that planes can land and take off safely regardless of external visibility conditions. But that is still years away.
Fusing real-time imagery and data with synthetic vision is tremendously powerful. The next step on our roadmap is to fuse microwave radar, for example, and infrared camera feeds with the synthetic vision system. What you have is a square showing the runway as a real-time real but enhanced image with the synthetic imagery blending seamlessly with the edges of the “real” square on the display. The real-time imagery will show the pilot if an airport vehicle or an animal, for example, has encroached on the runway. We expect to be able to get minima down to 100 feet once this system is in place.