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The Advancement of Aviation Displays

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The history of aviation in America is one of accelerating technology and extreme risk. Flight is the safest way to travel and for some, the most frightening, It’s every possible precaution and a little prayer. And while the early pioneers were lauded as heroes and daredevils, today’s pilots are expected to perform with routine accuracy and overt caution. Corridors in the sky dictate lanes and traffic flow, while instruments in the cockpit and on the ground display flight and environmental data. Being able to read and interpret this data is perhaps a pilot’s most important job during a routine flight. In the early days of aviation; paper maps, celestial navigation, analogue controls and compasses were used by the pilot and co-pilot to make calculations just to say on course, but this has obvious disadvantages and relied heavily on the pilot’s judgement and attention level, as well as the weather, and other variables in what could easily become a stressful situation. On board instruments were often also delicate and difficult to read, especially at night; which only went to compound the inherent danger of flying. But, because of nature of aviation technology, cockpit controls have advanced to the point in which onboard computers share many of the pilot’s responsibilities, and the use of Liquid Crystal Displays (LCD) and touch screens are replacing older, more problematic gauges. The advantages of new cockpit display technology over the older models allow more situational awareness for the pilot, more reliability of the equipment, and simpler more standardized layouts across the aviation industry. The use of LCDs and touch screens in general means a safer, more connected flight.

A fully analogue airplane cockpit (Photo credit: Handy’s Shutter)

It wouldn’t be correct to say that LCDs were the first display technology to enter a cockpit. Starting in the late 1960’s the US military began equipping its aircrafts with multi-function displays (MFD), which started as monochromatic Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) displays that replaced traditional analogue equipment. At a time when the typical aircraft had over 100 controls, MFDs began the trend of shrinking the instrument cluster and giving the pilot a more concise view of flight information. The new, electronics driven instrument panels were monikered a “Glass Cockpit” and have been the peak design of airplane dashboards since their inception.The original CRT MFDs however, while leaps and bounds better than previous technology, still had a few inherent drawbacks. CRTs of the time could be difficult to read, especially at extreme viewing angles or in poor lighting conditions. Monochromatic CRTs couldn’t color code specific data, and a color CRT’s image could be distorted, washed out or misinterpreted in changing light. CRT’s even had a few disadvantages when compared to the original analogue controls which they replaced. CRTs were more susceptible magnetic interference, to vibration, could be more difficult to maintain, and required a constant, high power source.

CRT cockpit displays can dramatically lose their clarity in prohibitive lighting conditions (Photo credit: Sage Edge)

During the 1990’s airplane manufacturers began switching their multi-function displays from CRTs to LCDs with the improvement in technology. LCDs provide many technical benefits over their CRT cousins, including: much better color and contrast, a smaller dashboard footprint, lower power consumption, increased reliability, and the ability to be used in conjunction with a touch screen. Using an LCD and touch screen controller, the pilot and co-pilot can both view and manage important actions and information such as cabin pressure, radio frequencies, course corrections and other system functions.Common touch screen features such as pinch & zoom and tapping allow the operator to access nearly infinite amounts of information on a single screen, de-cluttering the cockpit further, and reducing the time it takes to find and fix a potential problem. Far from being a novel improvement, the absolute ubiquity of touch screen technology throughout daily life makes it all the more more intuitive for the pilot to do his or her job. There are, however, problems with modern LCD flight displays. Because so much information has been condensed on to the screen, having a single malfunction can be catastrophic, while an electrical failure can leave the pilot literally in the dark, without access to much of the planes system data or radio communication. Because of these extreme possibilities, some of the most integral aspects of the flight control are still backed up with analogue options.

A modern Glass Cockpit equipped with LCD flight controls (Photo Credit: PlaneView)

The cockpit may have the most important display technology on board the plane, but inside the cabin, entertainment becomes a priority for passengers. In-flight movies are a staple on commercial trips, and most are shown on headrest monitors comprised of LCDs. While not as integral as the MFDs mentioned earlier, in-flight entertainment displays must hold up to their own set of standards and challenges as well as being aesthetically pleasing. Many of these displays will be powered on continuously and be touched by countless people. Therefore, they must be rugged enough to withstand the wear and tear of public use as well as the added stress of air travel. AGDisplays, an FAA certified repair station, is equipped to ensure that in flight displays can hold up to rigorous use, and our lamination and polarization techniques can repair cosmetic damages in lieu of a costly replacement. Failure of one of these displays, however an inconvenience to the passenger, wouldn’t likely affect the safety of the flight in any way near the failure of an MFD.

In-flight entertainment (Photo credit: Fast Co. Design)

The dispersion effect of technology is apparent with the application of cockpit displays. What began as a military program has filtered into commercial and space flight. NASA’s glass cockpits work in much the same way as those in the aviation industry, and heavy equipment like trains and cargo trucks are being equipped with their own styles of electronic controls. Even normal cars are being produced with stock LCD touch controls that can draw their lineage to MFDs and glass cockpits. The trend of adding MFDs to vehicles will only continue as autonomous driving continues to emerge and responsibility of the driver or pilot switches from controlling the craft to controlling the controller.

To learn more about AGDisplays, NVIS and our custom design solutions, please visit our website at agdisplays.com

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