Innovations in electronically dimming window shades and fully integrated cockpits can be applied to aircraft of all sizes

Innovations, whether crafted for the lightest of light jets or for the world's most advanced airliners, tend to be mobile when needed, crossing product boundaries in the name of safety, efficiency and cost. Two examples of technologies developed for opposite ends of the aircraft spectrum but universal enough to migrate between the two were on show at Le Bourget: PPG's electrochromic cabin windows for the Boeing 787 and Integrated Solutions and Support's new Eclipse 500 fully integrated cockpit.

Electronically dimming window shades, which are similar to automatically dimming rear-view mirrors in cars, are a hot topic in aviation largely because of the technology's incorporation into the Boeing 787 cabin. Glass providers are now jostling to build next-generation cabin and cockpit windows, not just for the big jets.

Rivals PPG Aerospace, builder of the 787 electrochromic shades, and Saint-Gobain are key contenders for thousands of shades and windows in new Boeing, Airbus and business jet aircraft. PPG recently delivered its first batch of 97 window shades to Boeing to be installed in the third 787 test aircraft.

Boeing originally sought an electronic shade to replace aircraft cabins' traditional pull-down plastic opaque shades because the 787's windows were too large for traditional shades. Boeing would have had to use accordion-style shades, which are considered too maintenance-intensive, say PPG officials. PPG then teamed with Gentex, a maker of automatically dimming automobile rear-view mirrors, to win a contract to provide Boeing with a cover-less window shade.

Chemical reaction

The technology uses two layers of glass sandwiching two layers of a transparent metallic conductor with a sealed non-toxic gel in the middle. To dim the "shade", a control switch beneath each 787 window passes an electric current through conductors, causing a chemical reaction that changes the colour of the gel, blocking out up to 99% of incoming light. Cabin crew will also have a master control allowing them to override passenger controls.

"We're talking to almost every manufacturer that is building new aircraft, including business aircraft," says PPG.

Saint-Gobain did not bid for the Boeing contract, but is said to be working with Airbus on cabin and cockpit dimmable windows using a competing electrochromic technology similar to the one it uses for the convertible hardtop on the Ferrari Superamerica car.

That process uses multiple glass sheets sandwiching thin transparent electrochromic layers that act like a battery, the electrolyte changing colour according to the charge applied, says the company. Aircraft manufacturers are interested in the technology for the aircraft's front end, for temperature and visibility reasons, and for the cabin, mainly for the business and first-class sections. Saint-Gobain says flight tests are under way and the product could be available within two years.

At the other end of the spectrum, cockpit aids developed by Innovative Solutions and Support (IS&S) for the world's first very-light jet, the miniscule (compared with the 787) Eclipse 500, are now percolating into the cockpits of commercial airliners.

IS&S joined a team of providers to build the Eclipse 500's AvioNG integrated cockpit after the company parted ways with Avidyne, provider of the Avio integrated cockpit system, in March. AvioNG is IS&S's first forward-fit product with an aircraft original equipment manufacturer (OEM). To date, retrofit packages have focused largely on flight displays for large military aircraft and for big commercial aircraft such as the Boeing 757 and 767. IS&S currently has a backlog of more than 250 units for the 767.

low-cost version

With Eclipse, IS&S had the opportunity to work with a highly integrated, low-cost version of a cockpit that traditionally would be priced at about $1.5 million in an airliner compared with about $100,000 for the VLJ. IS&S's breadth of experience allowed it to deliver a system with general aviation pricing, business aircraft-level software integrity and military-level ruggedness, says company president Roman Ptakowski.

Although IS&S inherited forward-looking design elements from Eclipse, including the use of bezels to control the configuration of data on the three flat-panel displays, two primary flight displays and one large multifunction display mid-panel, it added its own human factors-centred innovations. One-level-down menus and a zoom feature that helps pilots see adjustable inputs, such as heading bugs, are two of the new features.

The enhancements on the Eclipse panel are now causing a bottom-up technology push. Ptakowski says IS&S will incorporate some of the new-found features, including the zoom control, into cockpits of 200 American Airlines Boeing 757s and 767s it recently won a contract to upgrade.

Source: Flight International