With all the advances in smart phones, what are the possibilities for smart planes? What is happening in one is going to drive changes in the other, Colin Mahoney believes. In a presentation to the 2014 Canadian Aerospace Summit in Ottawa, the senior vice president of international and service solutions for Rockwell Collins shared some thoughts on e-enabling aviation and what that could mean for flight deck innovation and information management. He spoke with Vanguard about how those changes might play out.

You spoke about the need to get the human-machine interface (HMI) right. What’s the challenge?

As you become used to simplicity in your interaction with everything – cars, personal devices – that drives an expectation you have for everything else. If you are a pilot, you are enamoured with flight decks that are simple and intuitive. So we are focused on making sure we do that by the way we structure the flight deck operating philosophy. I referenced things like touch screens, head up guidance: if you expand that to a military application with advanced capabilities such as an F-35 helmet-mounted display system where anything that a pilot needs to know or see is in his sphere of view, that is the highest pinnacle of situational awareness. And even though it is a complex machine, it is as easy to fly as it possibly can be using those technologies.

Our philosophy is always to keep your eyes up and out of the flight deck, and one of the ways to do that is to make sure what you are looking at is in the field of view, or at the very least within the major display. The last thing you want to be is fumbling down in the console, even in the touch screen environment.

Is the goal then voice interaction?

Voice has always been something everybody has focused on. But we have to make sure of its robustness before we start thinking about entering it into service. The last thing you want is make something more onerous from a human-machine interface standpoint ¬– I can talked to it but now I have to switch three buttons to validate that it heard me correctly. That is a problem, though with the level of software capability, that problem is diminishing. The next challenge is getting the regulators onboard. But voice is definitely coming and it will, as it has with our home devices, make flying aeroplanes easier.

Within that spectrum of interaction – digital cockpits, touch screen, big glass, heads up displays and voice – what’s the next step?

It is going to be platform dependent. With touch screens, obviously you have to be able to reach them. We are close to a retrofit certification on our King Air with a touch screen version of our fusion flight deck and our pilots have been instrumental in making that very user friendly. If you are flying in turbulence, which bits of the screen can you touch? Resolving some of those HMI challenges will be really exciting in a turbo prop airplane. That will be the next phase of the journey.

The military is already looking at every aircraft as a node on a network, but you are suggesting there is additional data that needs to be extracted.

They need to be a node on a network in a battle scenario but there is also data on those airplanes that we need to find a way to extract and use in an efficient way as well. Why is a fleet of C-130s any different to a fleet of Air Canada CRJs in terms of maintenance and operating them efficiently? Obviously there is some older equipment so it involves retrofits – you have to bring it up to a level to be able extract that data.

We haven’t got a bottomless pit of fuel so can you fly more effectively, particularly around storms, for example? With our threat track radar, where you look out the window and see a storm but the system tells you it is okay to fly through that storm, historically I would have had to divert, land, refuel and go around it. Now I fly through, passengers are on time and I didn’t burn the fuel. That is happening all over the world. So it is not just about maintenance costs, it’s about flying the planes efficiently.

Do we fully understand the possibilities with our data, particularly militaries?

I don’t think so but then I wouldn’t blame the military for that – I don’t think the commercial guys do either. If you have a 787, you can do a lot with it. In all likelihood we are going to learn together as to how much that is. We’ve all got a lot of learning to do, but it will snowball once somebody understand how to harness that data and turn it into information, which is the key. Then good things happen and everybody is going to want to have access to that.

Ultimately this becomes a discussion about autonomy. Are we becoming more comfortable with that?

That’s always an interesting discussion. We are ways away from that, not because it couldn’t be done, but because of the acceptability. Are you going to get on an airplane flying from Ottawa to London knowing there is nobody on board flying it? In industry we know that is doable, in a safe way, but I’d like somebody to be there to oversee emergency situations. Will we go to single pilot? That’s probably the next step. I think the telling thing is going to be to track the auto industry.