On Display

L3 Communications Avionics Systems SmartDeck

December 1, 2007

Seamless--and smart

"What about that HSI?" When L3 Communications Avionics Systems debuted the SmartDeck integrated cockpit system at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) annual conference in September, it seemed as though everyone expressed an opinion about one small element of the design: The horizontal situation indicator (HSI) presented on the bottom half of the primary flight display (PFD) is tilted, forming an ellipse on the display rather than a circle.

And when we flew the SmartDeck in October for this report, I even remarked on it—thinking that for a sailor accustomed to looking at a compass rose from above, the transition would be minimal.

The reasoning for the switch foreshadows the future of the display's presentation, which will support synthetic vision and even more melding of attitude and course. At first glance, it looks a little like a design gimmick meant to differentiate a feature that isn't really that different from the competition's version. So would it prove distracting? More on that later.

SmartDeck has been under development for several years, first installed in a Cirrus SR22 aircraft in operation out of L3's Grand Rapids, Michigan, facility. By the time the company debuted the system earlier this fall, it was clearly ready for prime time. L3 has announced that the system will be used in development of the-jet, a very light jet in the works at Cirrus Design. In the meantime, the system looks ready for other customers, and L3 Vice President of Business Development Larry Riddle notes that the company is in discussion with several original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for potential installation. Frankly, the company needs to get another player on board, as the-jet is not slated to pierce the skies as a certificated product until 2010.

The components

SmartDeck is the first system for light general aviation production aircraft that offers out-of-the gate integration between the primary flight control system (autopilot) and instruments; moving-map GPS, weather (including datalink weather via WSI and L3's Stormscope lightning detector), terrain and traffic (L3's Skywatch), and enhanced vision displays (using L3's IRIS technology; see "On Display: In Plain Sight," August Pilot); engine management; and communications. Among other integrated cockpit display systems, the Garmin G1000 debuted without its GFC 700 autopilot component, and the Avidyne FlightMax Entegra still coordinates with second-party GPS/nav/coms and autopilot. Only Honeywell's Primus Apex comes close, and the lightest aircraft it's aimed for is the Pilatus PC-12.

The building blocks look familiar to pilots with any glass-cockpit experience: a PFD, a multifunction display (MFD)—both in a landscape presentation—a control panel between them (called the FDC, or flight display controller), and a center console unit (CCU) in the cockpit. Behind the scenes, a series of LRUs (line-replaceable units, referring to their ability to be pulled and serviced, replaced, or upgraded independently) drive the system; in the SR22, these are located in the empennage of the test aircraft. The flight control system (the IntelliFlight 1950, produced by S-Tec) components are found in the empennage, in the wing, and behind the instrument panel.

The pilot uses two types of controls to work the system—knobs and buttons are classified either as context sensitive or dedicated. Examples of dedicated buttons include the all-important "direct-to" and "nearest" buttons on the FDC. Context-sensitive dual control knobs and soft keys enable the user to access most system functions without too much searching through a menu structure—in fact, keeping most functions "shallow" and keeping actions consistent were primary goals of the SmartDeck development team. A graphic shows up to illustrate what the knobs can do in each context—some, such as use of the knob to sync and adjust the heading bug, perform as they do in other integrated flight decks.

A reversionary flight display (RFD) button brings both displays to reversionary mode, transitioning the screens to display both a modified primary flight display plus communications functions and crew alert and warning system (CAWS) advisories. In the event of a PFD or MFD failure, flight plan functions must be accessed on the CCU—normally the pilot can access them from either the CCU or the MFD. CAWS advisories include master caution, warning, and advisory annunciations at the top of the PFD or RFD, with aural alerts. A list also appears on the CCU, MFD, or RFD.

A miscompare function continually monitors both ADAHRS (air data attitude heading reference systems) units and compares flight-critical parameters. If the difference between the two units exceeds a predefined tolerance, the system automatically enters reversionary mode with the discrepancy highlighted in amber. For example, a difference between airspeed indications of greater than 10 knots would result in highlighting of the airspeed tape, and a CAWS warning list appearing on the RFD.

Several unique features set apart the basic operation of the system. If you attempt a function that is already in use, the system creates a "feature in use" message on the display—this normally crops up in instances such as the pilot attempting to change frequencies or edit a flight plan from two places (both of these tasks can be executed from the MFD or the CCU). Also, overlays onto the MFD are turned on and off through a graphic interface. After an overlay is selected for a particular background map (IFR or VFR) it stays active on that map even if the pilot selects another background map.

To top it off, the engineers have taken a stab at solving one pet peeve of GPS-using pilots everywhere: Where is the insertion point when editing or building a flight plan? The scroll function on the SmartDeck enables you to highlight not only a waypoint in the flight plan list, but also the space between two waypoints, making for intuitive insertions of additional waypoints in the routing.

Flight test

You can push all the buttons you want on the ground, but the real test is always in flight. So Gary Watson, director of development flight test for L3, and I got in the front of N891CD for an hour's flight in the Grand Rapids area. These guys must get out and test-fly a lot, because the airplane seemed very familiar to the local controllers.

We headed north out of the Class D airspace to maneuver around and set ourselves up for approaches back into Gerald R. Ford International Airport. Watson pointed out the vertical profile display on the MFD; basically it is a horizontal window showing terrain along the route along with the aircraft altitude. It reminds me of similar profile views on popular flight planning programs such as Jeppesen's FliteStar and Seattle Avionics' Voyager. A "flashlight beam" highlights the aircraft's projected flight path on the MFD for intercept planning.

Moving back to the PFD, we went over the features built into the airspeed tape (left side of the aircraft attitude display), and vertical speed and altitude tapes (on the right side of the attitude display). All use bugs that also command the autopilot, streamlining operations. And all use trend arrows to depict the aircraft's state in the next six seconds. Autopilot states are annunciated along the top of the PFD.

When Watson turned on the auto-pilot, it came on already in roll mode—which allows you to select altitude or vertical speed immediately, before you enter a course or a heading, if necessary. A flight director function brings up outlined command bars on the attitude display; these fill in magenta with the autopilot engaged. A go-around mode activated by a button on the power lever (throttle) returns the bars to a straight-ahead climb. SmartDeck annunciates the missed approach, and the course is loaded and ready to go, but the pilot still must hand-fly or manually command the initial climb segment. The system won't sequence to any turns, however, until any initial altitude restriction in the procedure is met.

Flight plan loading is straightforward; the differences begin when the pilot uses the Procedures soft key to load approaches, arrivals, departures, and holds. After pushing the soft key, select the procedure, and the course, frequency, and nav source appropriate to the procedure are automatically loaded. The Procedures menu also enables the pilot to insert airways from a fix.

All this integration made approaches so easy that, well, it's almost as easy to load and fly, say, a coupled ILS approach in visual conditions as it is to align the aircraft with the runway and manually manage the descent.

After the flight, Riddle asked me, "What did you think of the HSI?"

I had to admit it—I hadn't even noticed.

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