How can a pilot ensure safe transition to touchscreen avionics? What are the benefits they’ll gain in the cockpit, and how do these stack against the challenges? Mario Pierobon asks the industry...
An important aspect to enable seamless transition to touchscreen flight decks from older knob and button-operated avionics is the skillset pilots need to develop, and this will ultimately be developed through training.
The fact that smartphones and tablet computers have become mainstream is already a powerful enabler of touchscreen flight deck technology, notes Greg Crawford, associate director, avionics system engineering, Collins Aerospace.
“Touch phones, tablets and computers are in everyone’s daily lives and have shown to be simple and intuitive to use in general,” he elaborates. “Touchscreens in aviation have the same effect; they provide the ability to make the interaction points simpler to understand and utilize.
“Therefore, training is not expected to have a major impact.”
Paul Damschen, senior flight test pilot/DER at Universal Avionics agrees, noting that generally pilots do not need to develop any new skillsets, especially if they’re familiar with typical Smartphone or iPad devices, which most crews use now to manage their IFR charts.
“Training requirements typically surround the specifics of the user interface, in terms of the design philosophy of the user interface, and how to access and input information to the system,” he points out.
“A well-designed Touch user interface can and should be more intuitive than a traditional mechanical interface that cannot be easily adapted or changed to fit the mission for the airplane.”
Garmin adds that it’s integral that pilots familiarize themselves with a new flight deck or avionics suite prior to any flight, regardless of whether or not it has a touchscreen interface.
“We offer a wealth of training solutions ranging from free iPad training applications, web-based eLearning courses, or dedicated classroom training that’s held by our pilot instructors,” a Garmin spokesperson told AvBuyer. “Whether pilots are looking for training on a standalone GPS navigator or a fully integrated G5000 flight deck, we have a training solution.”
The Importance of Muscle Memory
Muscle memory also plays a significant role in the transition towards touchscreen flight decks. “Muscle memory is important for pilots as a set of actions to do a certain thing,” Crawford explains.
“In cockpits, controls are often scattered amongst the available real estate - pedestal, overhead, panel, etc. Certain heavily-used actions may require using controls in multiple locations. Touchscreens can greatly simplify some of these types of arrangements.
“Touchscreens are able to provide status on the same page as control, replacing the need to use muscle memory for control locations with a page that can provide a more intuitive user interface for actions,” he continues. “In addition, touchscreens can be used to automate a control action.
“As beneficial as touchscreens are, and as they become more prevalent in the cockpit, simple, ‘immediate need’ operations may still be best served with a dedicated button and muscle memory configuration,” Crawford concludes. “Therefore, systems will always need to be matched to the operation they serve.”
There are instances when muscle memory may actually negatively affect performance, however. “I personally try to avoid muscle memory for operations due to the nature of flight test and our need to understand each control input and evaluate its intuitiveness and correctness,” Damschen reveals.
“We do know that many pilots that use touch devices use muscle memory inputs heavily, but not more so than traditional FMS devices with mechanical keys and monochromatic displays.”
Operating Logic of Prime Importance
Garmin suggests the operating logic between different avionics suites and touchscreen flight decks is perhaps more important. “We purposely design our products so that if pilots have flown with a product such as the GTN 650/750 in a Bonanza, they can translate the operating logic over to the G5000 integrated flight deck in a Beechjet and have a similar user experience.
“A seamless pilot experience across the entire product line is essential to avionics and flight deck design.”