Touchscreen Cockpit Displays – Flying at the Touch of a Finger

Simplified operation, smoother processes, and more intuitive communication – on behalf of Airbus, the French technology group Thales has manufactured integrated touch screens for the cockpit of the long-haul A350 XWB aircraft. Certified in November 2019 by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), Airbus delivered the first aircraft with this system to China Eastern Airlines in December. So far, 17 airlines have chosen aircraft with this option, and seven are already flying them.
Three quarters of an hour to 30 minutes before landing, the captain and co-pilot have their hands full. To prepare for landing, they check the weather, the approach route, the gate assigned to them, the taxiway there, and any special features that need to be taken into consideration. “At Frankfurt Airport alone, there are dozens of approach procedures,” says Thomas Wilhelm, Airbus chief test pilot in Toulouse. For each one, there are charts and procedures stored in the digitized flight documents, the Electronic Flight Bag (EFB). “Thanks to the new touch screens in the cockpit of the A350 XWB, I can switch from the approach chart to the taxiing chart, for example, with just one touch instead of having to move the cursor several times.”

With the new cockpit setup, the three monitors displaying the EFB applications can be switched to touchscreen function. Of the total of six large monitors, these are the two outer ones and the one between the pilots. The touchscreen applications can be optionally selected, in addition to the keyboard in the extendable table in front of the pilot and the trackball keyboard cursor control unit in the center console. They are intended to facilitate the work of the pilots during the labor-intensive phases prior to take-off, during flight over various zones and during landing approach.

Last December, Airbus delivered the first A350 XWB with touchscreen cockpit displays to China Eastern Airlines. One month earlier, the European Union Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) certified the joint development with French technology group Thales. The 15-inch screen is the first of this type to be approved for use on board commercial aircraft. The requirements for cockpit displays are high: they must have minimal reflection, operate in dense electromagnetic environments, withstand high levels of vibration, and maintain these properties throughout the whole product life cycle. The features work in the same way as on a tablet or smartphone, allowing users to zoom, swipe and swivel the view with two fingers.

“With the development in computer technology, and tablets and smartphones becoming so easy to use, expectations have also risen in the aviation sector. Touchscreens simplify the process and thus reduce the workload.”

Thomas Wilhelm, Airbus chief test pilot in Toulouse

“The touchscreen allows me to call up information on the outer screen with one hand and enter data on the inner screen with the other,” says test pilot Thomas Wilhelm. “The cursor control unit only allows you to work on one screen. So, if I’m on the inner screen and want to enter something in the EFB, I have to move the cursor several times to change the screen in order to continue working on the outer screen.”

Wilhelm personally tested the touchscreen applications just recently. At the end of March, he flew a customer aircraft from Hamburg to Toulouse. A little later he took off for a twelve-hour development flight with the prototype of the A350-1000 via Canada to Toulouse. His verdict: “The touchscreens simplify the process and thus reduce the workload.”

The advantages of the touchscreen application are particularly evident on long-haul flights. “A flight from Germany to France is still relatively uncomplicated, as with Eurocontrol there is only one flight safety authority involved. A flight over Russia to China, for example, involves several air traffic control centers. They communicate on different frequencies, and there are always different limitations. For some, I have to report ten minutes before entering their airspace, for others half an hour. If I can call up the relevant information in the EFB relatively quickly with my finger, the workflow is much easier and faster than with the cursor.”

For Wilhelm, one huge benefit of the touchscreen in the center console is the improvement in communication between the pilots. “If both pilots are looking at the same map between them and can both zoom in with their finger to clarify information, they can communicate much more intuitively, more quickly, and avoid misunderstandings.”

His concerns about not being able to operate the touchscreens with the necessary fine movements during periods of turbulence were dispelled on his flight to Canada. The touchscreen on the center console is installed almost flat, so he can use it without discomfort. “Ultimately, I can switch back to the cursor at any time.”

It is not only the test pilot who is impressed by the new touchscreens. In addition to China Eastern, several other airlines including British Airways, Air France, Scandinavian Airlines, Aeroflot, China Southern Airlines and Finnair are among the first to run A350 XWB aircraft with touchscreen cockpit displays, and ten more have ordered the new option so far.

Text: Marion Frahm
Photos: Airbus, H. Goussé / master films
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