Tortoise and hare: Rockwell Collins high-end SVS gains ground after slow start

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One of the first major avionics companies to delve into the safety-enhancing virtual world of synthetic vision will be the one of the last to have a product on its shelves.

Engineers and experts at Rockwell Collins began researching the topic in the company's Advanced Technology Center with internal funding as far back as 1996, although a corporate decision was made to wait for a launch customer before starting work on developing a product.

Meanwhile, companies such as Chelton Flight Systems and Universal Avionics several years ago received US Federal Aviation Administration certification and began producing synthetic vision systems, followed in February by Rockwell Collins' main competitor, Honeywell, with a certificated SVS designed for Gulfstream's high-end business jets.

The lag does not seem to have impaired Rockwell Collins' position in the market. In back-to-back announcements earlier this year, the company revealed Bombardier as its launch customer for Pro Line Fusion, a new integrated avionics suite complete with synthetic vision, for the Global 5000 and Global XRS ultra-long-range business jets in 2011.

rockwell collins pro line fusion avionics 
 © Rockwell Collins

Next came Mitsubishi for its new regional jet, Cessna for its new Columbus Citationjet, Embraer for the Legacy 450 and 500 and Bombardier for the Learjet 85, all within the span of eight months from the September 2007 Bombardier kick-off.

Internally known as "M145" in the laboratories before it was tagged "Fusion", Rockwell Collins' SVS is the product of multiple Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and NASA research projects starting in 1998 that at times were staffed by "a couple hundred engineers", says Tim Etherington, a principal engineering manager in Rockwell Collins' Advanced Technology Center.

In one of the most aggressive of the projects from a terrain awareness and path guidance technology standpoint, Rockwell Collins outfitted the FAA's Boeing 727-100 research aircraft with its SVS linked to a head-down display. The computer-generated terrain information was then fused with an infrared-based enhanced vision system viewed through a head-up display.

Etherington says 10 Lockheed MC-130H Talon II special operations flight instructors with no jet transport experience from the Kirtland AFB in New Mexico were given 30min "stick time" on the specially equipped 727 before the mission.

The pilots then flew the first 30min of a low-level - 500ft (150m) training mission over northern New Mexico and southern Colorado looking out the window, then transitioned to visual aids (with the windscreen covered) for a successful 2h mission. At the end of the 2h, the pilots flew a "self-contained circling approach to 100ft", says Etherington.

Ongoing research is focusing on the terrain database that forms the backbone of the data presented by the SVS. Rockwell Collins is not yet prepared to discuss the form or accuracy of its database, but Etherington says research shows "a statistically significant break" at 6 arc-seconds accuracy (an image represented by one data point for every 180 x 180m section of terrain) for "quantitative" decision-making on a head-down display. Six arc-seconds is the highest resolution of Honeywell's SVS database, which is also used for its trademark enhanced ground proximity warning system.

Alex Postnikov, a systems engineer at the Advanced Technology Center, says the company investigated several terrain database programs but that it "could not find any specific vendors that could provide a pedigree to satisfy the FAA."

Rockwell Collins then began building a better mousetrap. "We acquired all possible data - government, commercial vendors and foreign governments. It's an ongoing process," says Postnikov.

"We have good coverage now," he says. "There's traceability. We can prove if necessary in a court of law the validity of data points."

For obstacles, Rockwell Collins is using a database built and maintained by Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen.

Ultimately, the upshot of the ongoing research has been a successful product differentiation, including "refined symbology and graphics that make interpretation easier", according to Tim Rayl, Rockwell Collins senior director of marketing for business and commercial systems.

Rockwell Collins says pilots were awed by situational enhancing symbology in its Pro Line Fusion synthetic vision, including white domes drawn over destination and alternate airports