Esterline develops state-of-the-art human-machine interface solutions for aircraft cockpits

By Jennifer Ferrero, APR, ACB, ALB

Most of us use a tablet or touch pad computer daily. We have come to expect the convenience of navigating, swiping, and searching information on a hand-held visual device. Now, Esterline is working to bring that convenience to the cockpit for airline pilots.

The touch screen in the cockpit is a brand-new technology for one of Esterline’s customers, Gulfstream, a corporate and luxury jet company. According to Brad Vercoutere C.P.M., Strategic Customer Manager, “We are the first company to offer an overhead touch screen control panel in the business jet market.” He added that this is a growing part of their business as more and more customers demand the convenience and flexibility of touch screen controllers.

Since touch screens are ubiquitous today it makes one wonder why a company like Apple, the creator of the iPad, didn’t create a similar product for the aerospace market. Vercoutere said that the glass needed in specialized aircraft applications is very different than what is used on a hand-held consumer product. At Esterline’s Everett, Washington location, specializing in Korry electronics products, they have a special group of engineers – electronic and mechanical – who specialize in glass. “It must be rugged and have special filters for night vision; and must not smudge.”

He added, “Glass folks may have general engineering degrees, but many of our team members have specialized skills unique to developing touchscreen displays and controls that meet the high demands of the aerospace and defense industry.” Additionally, while the raw glass used for these applications may be like what is used on an iPad or flat panel TV, the Korry specialists greatly alter its properties during the manufacturing process.

Once the glass has been developed, it is a matter of developing the software that will run the cockpit touchscreen controls. Another Esterline subsidiary in Wisconsin provides Avista software services and helps develop the touch screen software used across the various phases of flight.

Both Esterline subsidiaries are part of the Control and Communication Systems division of Esterline, which focuses on total cockpit human-machine interface solutions from touch screens to pilot controls to pushbutton switches and knobs. Vercoutere said that the flat panel functions in the cockpit traditionally have used mechanical switches, knobs and toggles with multi-functions. He added, “One of the nice things about touch screen technology is that you can introduce new software without a mechanical change to the device.” The idea is like cars of the future receiving updated software for dashboard systems. The aircraft of the future will do so as well.

When will we see the flat panel in the cockpit going mainstream? Vercoutere said that we are already seeing this today. So far, the technology is mainly in military applications, but is quickly becoming adopted by commercial and business aircraft makers. He concluded that hiring new people into aerospace may be easier with these new technologies, saying, “Even though we are conservative for safety reasons, we are moving into a new technology that may interest younger people in this industry. It’s a step forward for a very traditional business.”