Technology refresh pushes the avionics boundaries

Washington DC
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Canadian avionics provider CMC Electronics says now is "the right time" to refresh its various technologies in preparation for a leaner, greener commercial aviation business emerging from the latest downturn. It is joined by fellow Canadian companies CAE and Neptec in pushing the boundaries of avionics and vision systems in the name of safety, efficiency and environmental stewardship.

A long-term goal of CMC is to become a provider of integrated cockpits in the commercial sector, marrying the various cockpit elements it now provides, including enhanced vision systems, GPS units, flight management systems and electronic flight bags. CMC already provides integrated flightdecks to the military trainer market.

Under the C$150 million ($136 million), five-year "FrontTier" research and development project announced in January, CMC plans to distinguish itself as "a major player" in the avionics design and integration field for both commercial and business aviation. More precisely, the company has said it is developing an integrated cockpit that will be equipped with dual head-up displays and an open software architecture, available first on a business jet in the 2013 timeframe. Two-thirds of the funding is being provided by the Canadian government and Quebec province.

In the nearer term, CMC its putting a share of its research and development dollars to work in creating a third-generation enhanced vision system. Called the CMA 2700, the system will be offered on the Bombardier Global Vision flightdeck for the Global 5000 and Global Express XRS from 2011.

Bruce Bailey, CMC commercial aviation vice-president, says the CMA 2700 will have a 640 x 640 pixel sensor, up from the 256 x 256 pixel sensor in today's second-generation CMA 2600 unit, offered as an option on the Bombardier Global Express series. Bailey says the new sensor will provide three times the resolution of the previous system, with respect to pixels, and will use "a much more advanced set of algorithms for signal processing".

The company's military work has helped offset its declining airline retrofit market for items such as GPS units, flight management systems and electronic flight bags during the most recent downturn, says Bailey.

The last time this happened, in 2001 and 2002, CMC was in the midst of an upgrade programme for classic Boeing 747s deemed to be cost effective to operate but sorely outdated in the cockpit. Retrofits included the GPS, primary flight displays and inertial reference systems. "We're trying to position ourselves for something similar now," says Bailey.

On the menu for the next upturn is the company's new 265mm (10.4in) Class II PilotView electronic flight bag, which Boeing has selected for its next-generation 737s and Boeing Business Jets. A military version of the EFB, called the TacView, has been selected by Lockheed Martin for the C-130J Block 7 and Block 8 upgrade programme that will begin next year. CMC's wide-area augmentation system GPS enhancement, certificated last year, will also be included in the forward-fit C130J upgrades.

Also making inroads in the cockpit - for the first time - is Canadian simulator company CAE. As part of its C$714 million "Falcon" research and development programme, CAE has teamed with Ottawa-based Neptec Design Group to develop a 3D vision aid for pilots. The money includes a C$250 million loans from the Canadian government its Strategic Aerospace and Defence Initiative.

Project Falcon will include six technology "thrusts", including the development of an "augmented visionics" system for the cockpit. CAE says the system will help pilots taxi, take off and land safely in reduced visibility.

The technology is largely directed to help the rotorcraft industry with brownout problems - vision-cutting dust recirculation caused by rotor downwash - that costs militaries millions of dollars a year in equipment damage.

For "augmented visionics", CAE's plans to provide a 3D synthetic vision system derived from terrain and obstacle databases it has developed for military applications, complementing the computer-generated scene with a real-time picture of the environment using Neptec's light detection and ranging technology with forward-looking infrared sensors.