Pulling back the curtain on touchscreen avionics

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Winter in the U.S. Midwest often involves plenty of time indoors. My family tends to spend a fair amount of that time watching movies, and one of our recent viewings was, “The Wizard of Oz,” which got me thinking about how the final scene can be analogous to many of us in the aviation industry.

I’ll spare you a full synopsis, but for those who have seen the movie, who can forget the famous line — “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

Technology feels a lot like that today. We all wonder, what’s really going on behind the scenes?  Just like they did in this classic movie, I’d like to pull back the curtain and show you what touchscreen avionics are all about.

Touch technology

ATM withdraw

There are actually a few different types of technologies when it comes to touchscreen. For the sake of comparison, let’s consider touchscreen interactions on an ATM machine at your local bank. If it’s like the one I use, you can touch the screen to select “Withdrawal,” “Checking,” and so on, but you are only able to interface with the system by touching predetermined locations on the screen. In effect, these are “virtual” buttons; not very different than having actual, physical buttons along each side of the screen.

In another category, let’s consider the user interface of modern smartphones and tablets. You can drag, drop, and swipe left and right. You’re able to interact with each object, regardless of location on the screen — moving it, starting a process, etc., all via a light touch. The entirety of the screen is useable and, literally, at your fingertips.

Into which category would the “touchscreen” interaction of Pro Line Fusion® fall?

First, let’s review some of the features of the avionics system’s touchscreen interface.

Resistive vs. capacitive touch
The Pro Line Fusion touchscreen uses a resistive surface, rather than capacitive.  This means that, though the interaction may be similar to today’s personal devices, the technology is different. The Pro Line Fusion system uses a resistive surface, which is when the screen senses pressure, not the electrical properties of the human body. It also means that the screen will sense only intentional touches, something that becomes important when you’re bumping around in flight. In contrast, the capacitive technology would require a pilot to touch the screen with bare skin (or a special glove with capacitive fingertips), and the screen would respond to any light touch — intentional or not.  

PFD and MFD interaction
The Pro Line Fusion touchscreen interaction is possible on all three 14-inch displays. Both Primary Flight Displays (PFD) and the Multi-Function Displays (MFD) respond to touchscreen commands.  When you consider that all three displays are also fully configurable (i.e., you can split the displays to show multiple items), you can conceivably have different PFD configurations for arrival and approach. For example, a pilot may want synthetic vision on the attitude indicator with the destination airport indicated by the airport dome, and a moving map or chart on the right of the PFD.

Relevant menus
The touchscreen interaction with the moving map is my favorite. If you see something — an airport, navaid, for example — touch it, and a menu appropriate to that object will appear.  If, for example, you see weather ahead and you want to reroute, it’s simple to touch the aircraft “Reroute”, touch the screen to create user-defined waypoints around the weather, and then touch “Exec”, and the Flight Management System (FMS) integrates the new route into the flight plan. No smoke and mirrors here, just a simple, direct way to fly.

If you’ve had the opportunity to interact with the Pro Line Fusion touchscreen via a demo unit on a trade show floor or in a Pro Line Fusion-equipped King Air, you have undoubtedly seen for yourself how closely the user interface resembles that of a modern personal device.  We’re only scratching the surface of the touchscreen capability of this avionics suite by pulling back the curtain on just a few of its features here. I hope you’re beginning to see that it’s more than a collection of “virtual” buttons, but a true touchscreen interaction.

When you pull back the curtain on touchscreen avionics, you may not find a wizard, but the true innovative mind of an engineer can be just as magical.

Read more about author Ben Gambrell.