From the very first autopilot to 3D printing – Honeywell aims to put 'human factors' at the heart of its second century. TIM ROBINSON reports from Phoenix, Arizona.

 Where it all began - Sperry's first autopilot - 1914. (Honeywell)

The past 100 years of aviation has seen many technological advances – and many that Honeywell (or its legacy companies) has played a vital part in. From the first autopilot, developed by Lawrence Sperry in 1914, to the first APU in 1948 and the first 3D weather radar. Meanwhile, 18 years ago, the company’s EGPWS (Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System) was a critical safety advance in removing CFIT (Controlled Flight into Terrain) as the primary cause of fatal airliner hull losses. With legacy companies that include Sperry, Garrett, Bendix and Allied Signal among others, today Honeywell Aerospace’s product solutions range from bizjet engines such as the HTF7000, to ATM, from green taxi systems, to sensors for satellites, to inflight connectivity. The company is also a key supplier to the Airbus A350 programme – providing the APU, ventilation system, FMS, cabin pressure control, air conditioning, and bleed air system.
 
So far, so good. But in the next 100 years Honeywell is aiming for a subtle shift in its strategy – to incorporate an ‘Apple-like’ approach to its technology. This will see the company put what might be termed ‘Human Factors’ at the heart of its thinking. Its buzzword is the Honeywell User Experience (HUE). This can range from using a smaller, standard set of tools to maintain one of its bizjet engines, to touch-screen FMS’s for the cockpit. Admits Carl Esposito, VP of Marketing and Product Management: “Previously we focused on the pilot. Now we need to consider all the ‘personas’ – the mechanic, installer and our employee". The goal, says the company, is to introduce an ‘Apple-like’ intuitive relationship between its technology and products – and the user – whoever they may be. HUE, says Honeywell,  is about all the people that 'touch the product at all parts of the lifecycle'.

As well as its ‘HUE’, Honeywell is addressing the challenges of future aviation – such as ATM modernisation and environmental impact. It also goes without saying, that it intends to continue to advance safety through innovation.   

To explain this new approach, the company recently hosted its inaugural media event for international media at its Phoenix , Arizona HQ. The event included briefings about its, work on the Airbus A350 XWB, visits to factory and R&D labs, a technology symposium and even a demonstration flight in one of its test aircraft – a 1950’s vintage Convair 580.    

‘Disney-style’ design studio  

   

Voice and eye-tracking control testing in Honeywells FD-X lab. Note 'storyboard' and post it notes on wall. (Honeywell).  

As well as a flight in a vintage airliner, perhaps the most interesting part of the trip was a rare, unprecedented look behind the scenes at the company’s creative design process for avionics. Honeywell is, of course, well known for its avionics products, which include weather radar, FMS’s, TCAS, EGPWS and the Dassault Falcon EASy glass cockpit. But how are these created? At Honeywell’s Flightdeck of the Future FD-X Laboratory at its Deer Valley avionics facility in Arizona, the company’s engineers work on very early concepts for glass-cockpit and human interfaces.
 
Inside this small room, the atmosphere is less an aerospace company, more like a Disney or Pixar film production or special effects office, promoting creativity and free-thinking. This analogy is made stronger by the use of a movie-style storyboard, around the walls of the lab. These storyboard sketches tell the story of a typical flight from ‘Once upon a time’ to ‘happily ever after’, breaking down  the pilots and flight crew's actions into key stages and asking the question ‘what if’ to solve challenges at each point. For example, the first stage, listening to the ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) before take-off,  the sketch shows the pilot raising a hand and a ‘shush’ caption. The challenge in this particular case is to ask the  question, is there a way to allow the pilot to temporally hush the radios (without using touch) to listen to the ATIS?

Enter ‘gesture control’ - borrowed from the consumer video gaming market. In this lab, Honeywell engineers are looking and testing new and exciting HMI concepts like gesture control (hold you hand up to quiet the radios), eye-tracking, ‘tactile feedback’ for flap or throttle handles (which perhaps could warn the pilot of an  incorrect landing configuration). Combining these technologies, for example voice recognition and eye-tracking, would allow a pilot to set autopilot speeds or altitude, by simply looking at the relevant number on the PFD or even HUD and saying the new value.
 
Another line of development in the lab is a PFD external 3D view ‘above and behind’ the aircraft when taxiing around airports. This sees the PFD (with synthetic terrain) ‘swoop’ backwards to give an over-the shoulder view of the aircraft, similar to a video game view of a vehicle. Why do this? This viewpoint gives better situational awareness - allowing the pilot to see taxiways off to their left and right and in the distance far better than the standard ‘straight ahead’ PFD view. The synthetic view of the airport and taxiways is also tweaked in other ways too. For example, the taxiway marking signs are made larger than real life, making airport navigation far easier. The external view display also automatically reverts to the standard PFD view when the aircraft lines up on the departure runway – in one smooth transition.
      
Finally, these solutions, mocked up using desktop PCs and consumer gaming motion trackers are rated by key outsiders, stakeholders and customers. Each is given coloured post-it notes to attach to the ‘storyboard’ and rate the ideas – from red (don’t bother), yellow (potential but caveats) to green (yes). Comments and extra feedback are actively encouraged.
      
The idea from all this ‘playful’  brainstorming is not that every single one of these concepts will reach the market, but by creatively playing with numerous ideas, this large ‘funnel’ can quickly sort and rate the best ideas for further study and testing, quickly discarding the ones that show the least promise.

 

iPads in the cockpit

Honeywell Motion Simulator test rig is being using to explore the issues of touchscreen interfaces in the cockpit. (Honeywell)

Nearer term, Honeywell is also researching the effects of integrating today’s consumer technology – namely touchscreen tablets, such as iPads, into flightdecks. Though the take-up of these ubiquitous devices, by pilots that range from GA, to airline to even military fliers, has been overwhelming, Honeywell is keen to understand the human factors issues of these touchscreen devices as a permanent feature in next generation cockpits. In its research labs at Deer Valley, Arizona, it has a low-cost motion platform simulator to test just this. In this simulator different types of touchscreen technology can be trialled with varying levels of turbulence and motion, and with gloves on or off. The positioning of the tablet device can also be shifted to examine where would be the best place to mount it. Finally, as well as measuring the accuracy of pilot inputs to the tablet on a typical task (for example when selecting an airport incline and tower frequency from an airport chart), the simulator set-up also features biosensors that can be attached  to pilots arms – to measure tiredness in muscles when the tablet in mounted in different positions. All this human factors research is crucial to understanding the implications of touchscreen displays as the technology continues to migrate from the home into the air. The company is putting safety first by collecting large amounts of data on these new consumer-led tools, despite the ‘cool’ factor. Said one Honeywell researcher: “It has to earn its way into the cockpit.”
          
Honeywell’s avionics labs also include an 'advanced cockpit simulation'  – the next phase of avionics design after the ‘blue sky’ Pixar ideas lab. Here the ideas are put into a generic (but representative) fixed-based simulator to see how these avionics and control concepts combine into a workable cockpit. Compared to a currrent generation cockpit, this future glass cockpit is sleek and unclutttered, presenting the key information in a simplfied, but quick to digest form, with readouts that echo smart phone icons.     

Testing, testing

Handflying the Convair 580 testbed is popular among Honeywell test pilots.  

Of course, a neat idea in a lab has a long way to go before it can be developed, manufactured and, most importantly, for an industry that revolves around safety – certificated. To that end, Honeywell operates a surprisingly large aircraft fleet of eight different aircraft for its engines and avionics testing. This includes a King Air C90, AStar helicopter, Dassault Falcon 900EASy as well as a Boeing 757, which is used to flight test the company’s business jet engines. The company also has two ‘vintage’ aircraft in its stable – a 1952 Convair 580 and a Lockheed Sabreliner. The Convair, acquired in 1991 by Honeywell was chosen because its nose could accommodate a 30in radar dish, for testing 3D weather radar. Today, it is still active as an airborne testbed, with equipment racks and test benches. For a flight demonstration with journalists, the Convair was flown from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport in a local flight to show off the EGPWS and TCAS. The 62-year old Convair is also fitted with Honeywell’s latest SmartLanding/SmartRunway technology (a development of the earlier Runway Awareness and Advisory System (RAAS)), which provides audio and visual awareness of unstabilised approaches to pilots or if they are about to land long and run out of runway. The system also compares the line-up and advises if the pilot is about to land on a taxiway or if there is insufficient runway length left. Says Honeywell’s Chief Test Pilot Markus Johnson of the system: “It puts a third pilot back in the cockpit”.

The Convair’s cockpit may be an incongruous mix of steam gauges and the latest runway and traffic safety systems – but 62 years on, this aircraft is still performing a vital role in advancing the cause of aviation safety. With runway incursions and overruns, go-arounds and unstabilised landings a major concern for regulators, the hard-working Convair still has a crucial job here.  

Electric taxiing

 

Honeywell/Safran EGTS at Paris Air Show in 2013. As well as the A320, the fuel-saving device could equip COMACs C919 in the future.  

Honeywell is also active through a partnership with Safran in addressing the challenge of sustainable aviation – on the ground with its Electric Green Taxing System (EGTS). This uses motors in the main wheels, powered by the APU, to save fuel while taxiing allowing the pilot to only run up the main engines when the aircraft is set to depart. Honeywell say that this system, optimised for single-aisle airliners like the A320, has around 30 airlines interested in the system which is aimed at entering service in 2017. For a airliner on high-cycle routes, Honeywell say the EGTS would pay for itself in a year/                       

Technology symposium

 

3D printing prototypes on display at the engineering symposium.

As noted earlier, this new HEU approach also extends to maintainers and technicians too – not just pilots. In an engineering symposium that also included 3D printing and wingtip collision awareness, media were also shown a voice-recognition system for Honeywell’s maintenance workers. This uses a microphone and attached device to allow workers to quickly catalogue and book-in engines when they are returned for overhaul. Instead of clipboards and files, or even going back and forth typing on a laptop on a desk, this allows the MRO technician to speak serial numbers, catalogue parts, the damage and condition of the engine, while being verbally prompted using this interactive checklist.  The result is quicker, more accurate induction of engines for overhaul, with the time to book-in engines shortened to 15-20 minutes instead of two hours plus.

Another innovation demonstrated at the symposium was a new ground collision wingtip system. This uses ADS-B surface positioning, coupled with the EGPWS database, aircrasft wingspan and braking capability data and velocity algorithms to determine whether an aircraft could collide with a building or structure when taxiing or pushing back. The technology was demonstrated earlier this year in February at Paine Field, Washington, using the company’s C90 testbed.

The symposium was thus a fascinating insight into the wide variety of Honeywell’s future  products and solutions that are now in R&D from ATM middleware to deal with ‘more connected aircraft’ to 3D printing of ceramic casting cores for turbine blades – vastly speeding up the tooling process, while cutting costs. Elsewhere, wireless uploading of databases and flightplans for business and GA customers was another focus of R&D, as was next-generation prototype FMS systems that take cues from iPads and mobile phones.          


Conclusion

 

Honeywell's nextgen 3D taxi view uses simplicity and intiutive design to improve situational awareness around an airport. (Honeywell).

This then, is just a snapshot of just some products and solutions from the diverse company that is Honeywell Aerospace. However, in all these areas, there is a now common theme. If the first century of human powered flight was about mastering the external environment, with speed, altitude and size as the performance drivers – the second century’s aerospace challenges increasingly revolve on the internal environment of the ‘mind’ – whether it is the pilot, mechanic, factory worker or passenger – in enhancing safety, promoting efficiency or delivering comfort – or even delivering a greener planet for our children. Honeywell’s ‘Disney-style’ blue-sky R&D flightdeck lab may be an indicator of how traditional aerospace companies will evolve in harnessing the creative power of engineers. Says Carl Esposito of the lure of aviation and aerospace to young minds: “We make things that last, that go around the globe and that make people look up and wonder how it works.”

 

 Lined up on Pheonix Sky Habor Airport in the Convair. Honeywell's SmartLanding system provides audio and visual cues of an unstable approach or the wrong runway.

  

Tim Robinson
20 June 2014