Are Touchscreens Here to Stay?

Posted on January 25, 2012 by Mac

The Garmin GTN 750 touchscreen flight management system

Garmin is all in on touchscreen avionics. It will no longer build its wildly successful GNS 430/530 flight management systems which have been replaced in production by the GTN 700/600 series units that have touchscreen control. Garmin also has the G2000, G3000 and G5000 integrated flat glass systems that span the spectrum from piston single to the fastest business jet all using touchscreen control units.

And Garmin is by no means alone. Avidyne has announced development of touchscreen navigation and flight management control units. So has Bendix/King. And one of the biggest players of all, Rockwell Collins, has added touchscreen capability to its Fusion advanced flat glass avionics system for turbine airplanes.

We’re living in a touchscreen world given the overwhelming acceptance of smart phones, iPads and all manner of personal electronic devices. Even a new refrigerator and clothes dryer has a touchscreen pad to command its operation. Why would aviation not join in the touchscreen revolution.

Garmin was first to market with an installed and certified touchscreen system when it introduced the GTN 750/650 about a year ago. Garmin had been showing me developmental versions of touchscreen avionics for a few years so I wasn’t surprised. The GTN 750/650 was the product of extremely intensive research and development by Garmin because, well, they were betting the farm on superseding the GNS 400/500 series, the most successful avionics units in history.

From the first time I heard about, or thought about, touchscreen avionics I had two big concerns. The first was how well could we pilots operate a touchscreen device in turbulence. And the other thought was how long would it take for us to break the decades old habit of having knobs and buttons dedicated to performing the same function all of the time.

My concern about using a touchscreen in turbulent conditions is, I think, unfounded. My fear was based on some push button avionics systems from the late 1970s that, when mounted in a vertical position on an instrument panel, were hard to operate in the bumps. But Garmin addressed most of those issues by designing in a kind of raised ridge around the screen that allows you to grip with several fingers while using one to touch in commands. As touchscreens are integrated into new airplane designs the screens will be tilted off the vertical so your hand can rest on the edge of the screen making operation even easier.

The issue of transitioning from dedicated knobs and buttons to touchscreen menus is actually being resolved by our everyday lives. Most of us are spending so much time using touchscreen devices that it has, or quickly will be, the norm. When I call Exec Air and ask them to fuel the airplane I use a touchscreen. I typically use my smart phone to enter the flight plan into flightplan.com. I use a touchscreen in the car when I drive to the airport. So it’s just natural that in the airplane touchscreens will be there.

The discussion of whether a touchscreen is easier or harder to use in the airplane is almost irrelevant. The real question is do touchscreens allow precise and desired control of our avionics? I think the answer is yes. And what flows from that is all sorts of benefits for the future.

Designing, certifying and manufacturing a touchscreen avionics system initially is probably about as complex, and costs about the same, as creating one with traditional buttons and knobs. But after that initial design, it’s game over for the touchscreen. Almost any changes in avionics operation, or new technology, or new regulation, can be handled via the touchscreen through new programming. If the design of the system, or its menus, or the steps required for normal operation are not optimum, they can be improved as we gain experience. Buttons and knobs lock us into the now—actually the past when the equipment was designed–but the touchscreen keeps the door open for almost continuous change and improvement.

As good as the touchscreen is for performing most avionics functions there are some tasks that just can’t be done better than with a twist knob or button. For example, can any control device beat a twist knob for setting the heading bug? No. Same for dialing in a baro setting, or a target altitude. Those types of simple and direct flying tasks we do dozens of times on every flight and have only a single level of complexity just can’t be improved on, and they won’t take on new forms and functions in the future.

Aviation must necessarily always be a step or two behind the newest technology because we only want to leave the ground using structural material and equipment with proven performance. But now, touchscreen technology is so embedded in all of our lives it’s time for it to move into our cockpits. Garmin has sold more than 90 million various electronic devices for all manner of uses and most of those use touchscreens. Pretty good testing to get ready to fly.

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44 Responses to Are Touchscreens Here to Stay?

  1.  John Patson says:
    January 26, 2012 at 06:07

    New skill needed though will be cleaning the touch screen.
    French train stations have had touch screen ticket machines for around 10 years.
    They work fine, issuing thousands of tickets a day — as long as they are properly cleaned every day.
    If not, they quickly first become difficult to work with multiple stabs at the “button” needed for it to do its job, then just give up.
    It will take a couple of month’s flying for a screen to experience the use these ticket machines get in a day, but unless they are cleaned the result will be the same.

    Reply
  2.  pete says:
    January 26, 2012 at 17:53

    I hate touch screens. And that silly little scratchpad mouse thing on my laptop. Always doing something surprising because I bumped it accidentally. And that’s on my turbulence free desk. Iphone is pretty good, but I still end up 2 pages from where I want to be pretty darn quickly. Hate to have that happen on approach. Not gonna happen in my airplane anytime soon…

    Reply
  3.  Jeff Slutz says:
    January 26, 2012 at 18:38

    Nothing is more frustrating than when I touch the screen on my IPad, Automotive GPS, Android phone, etc., and it sits there and does nothing or delays while it’s “thinking”.

    I know when I turn the knob on my radio that it did what I wanted it to do. If Garmin is getting rid of the 430/530 series to go touch screen only, they have some convincing to do.

    Reply
  4.  Don says:
    January 26, 2012 at 19:12

    In addition to the G-530 and 430, I have a G-796. It is what the G-696 should have been, all because of the touch screen (and the addition VFR and IFR scanned maps). And it fits easily on my “rams horn” yoke.

    Reply
  5.  David Reinhart says:
    January 26, 2012 at 19:19

    Add me to the touch screen haters. Mac, you have a twin with a combustion heater. Those of us with singles getting our cabin heat from the exhaust muff get pretty cold here in New England this time of year. Touch screens don’t work with gloves! The Avidyne folks (who are based here) at least have knob equivalents for their 530 drop-in replacement box. If I was putting in a GPS/NAV/COM today I’d bite the bullet for the extra $$$ and install one of those versus the 430W I did two summers ago.

    Reply
    •  Jason Sills says:
      January 26, 2012 at 20:59

      Hi David,

      You mentioned that touchscreens don’t work with gloves. As Mac pointed out, your are likely referring to the “Capacitive” touchscreens, similar to what is found on the common iPhone. Your experience with the inability to use the iPhone with gloves on may turn out to be a positive.

      There are a number of glove manufacturers that are integrating “pads” on the outside of the gloves that channel the electrical charge (or ground?) to your fingers inside the glove through thin conducting fibers. They are relatively inexpensive and can be had with a quick internet search. (Wife’s Christmas present a couple years ago).

      The opportunity that I see presented for a capacitive touchscreen in cold weather comes from the accuracy offered by a “pad” integrated into the glove that is much smaller than the entire finger width. If a glove had an index finger pad only (none on the other fingers), the issue noted in this article about supporting one’s hand in turbulence becomes a non-issue. Go ahead and lay your whole hand on that screen! Your button presses will only be recognized at the point where the tip of your index finger is touches.

      Maybe we might even see a new product, “Turbulence Gloves.” Think light weight workshop style gloves for warm weather that prevent the rest of your hand from accidentally activated the self destruct sequence on your shiny new Dynon SmartTouch PFD. If someone produces this, be sure to cut me in!

      All that being said, does anyone know if these new touchscreens are turning out to be pressure activated, laser grid, or iPhone like capacitive?

      Reply
      •  Jason Sills says:
        January 26, 2012 at 21:01

        Oops. I failed to note this article sponsor. Scratch Dynon and make that your shiny new Aspen Avionics “SmartTouch” PFD.

        Reply
  6.  Pete2 says:
    January 26, 2012 at 19:20

    Touch screens below 40 degrees? Try getting in a cold-soaked aircraft at 6am in the morning on a 10 degree day (or colder), wearing bulky gloves, and attempt to get the aircraft rolling by using touch screens. You’ll be day-dreaming of knobs in a real hurry. This is true for any aircraft owner that lives, say north of the “Olathe, Kansas latitude”. Garmin apparently didn’t take into account Human Factors 6 months out of the year. Santa won’t be mounting one of these in his sleigh anytime soon. These are designed for the Doctor Killer aircraft owners, not for the part 135 charter pilot who operates in less than ideal conditions.

    Reply
  7.  Mac says:
    January 26, 2012 at 19:35

    Actually, there are several different touchscreen technologies, and some work just fine with gloves. The screens Garmin is using on several of its systems use a matrix of infrared beams to detect the “touch” instead of pressure or capacitance. And Garmin is well aware of the cold because TSO requirements set standards. I also lived in Kansas City of which Olathe is a suburb in the 1980s and I remember one week where the high temp never got to zero.
    I’m not saying you will love a touchscreen, or even like them. And it’s not my place to defend them. But I do believe they are here to stay for avionics along with other forms of electronics and the major players are all onboard. Will there be backup controllers in case of a failure of the screen? Of course. Some buttons and knobs will live forever.
    Mac Mc

    Reply
    •  David Reinhart says:
      January 26, 2012 at 21:27

      Why should I buy a product that requires me to buy another product? I’m fine with my 430W and if pilots are smart they’ll vote with their wallets and not buy the new Garmins. Like I said, I’d go with Avidyne right now.

      Reply
  8.  Charles Lloyd - Goddard, KS says:
    January 26, 2012 at 20:05

    Garmin touch screens cut work load. Loading an approach is one example. On a 400/500 system loading an approach requires 16 knob twist and button pushes. A 600/700 touch screen approach load takes 6 screen touches.

    I am not going to dump my 430W-530W for touch screens because I think there is more bang for the buck in a G 500 or Aspen suite and preparing for ADS-B.

    Don’t delude yourself about the coming revolution. Touch screen will lead the way.

    Charles

    Reply
    •  pete says:
      January 26, 2012 at 22:14

      It wouldn’t be the first ‘coming revolution’ that I ignored entirely.

      Reply
      •  Ted says:
        January 26, 2012 at 23:59

        Like the Nuvifone (“neverphone”)! lol

        Reply
        •  pete says:
          January 27, 2012 at 10:15

          or the Segway. That changed the world, didn’t it.

          Reply
  9.  David Reinhart says:
    January 26, 2012 at 21:20

    Whatever kind of screen Garmin uses it doesn’t work with gloves. I asked them at Expo at Hartford and they said no. I aslo gave them a hard time about going to touch screen technology.

    I know about the carbon impregnated gloves, but I have no idea if they are actually warm enough to begin with and whether they actually would allow fine enough movement. I feel about touch screens the same way I feel about HDTV and a lot of other stuff today: they’re all solutions in search of a problem.

    Reply
  10.  herb buboltz says:
    January 26, 2012 at 22:12

    How much $$ to fix when touch no longer works ? And out of warranty.

    Reply
  11.  ds says:
    January 27, 2012 at 10:20

    i hate tuch screans to begin with on ipods and phones i have never tryed one in the air but with the turbulence you can feel in a small airplane im not sure how well it would work out

    Reply
  12.  Lou Whitaker says:
    January 27, 2012 at 10:23

    I agree that touch screens are inevitable but —
    Try using a touch screen in really light aircraft like cubs, champs, T-Craft etc.. It is turbulent weather every day with these and the touch screen is a pain. Knobs work!
    I would also appreciate a screen visible in sunlight no matter how you actuate the “brains”

    Reply
    •  Dave Stadt says:
      January 28, 2012 at 00:40

      Have a Garmin Aera in my Cessna 120. I would never go back to a button type GPS. It is much easier to use and input errors are almost a thing of the past which was not the case with the previous generations and their multi use multi direction switches. Screen visibility in direct sunlight is outstanding. Huge step forward and much less heads down time.

      Reply
  13.  Eugene says:
    January 27, 2012 at 12:25

    I don’t think, it’d be a step ahead with the touch screen new models. I myself have a little experience with them except a bit in automobile GPS navigator. My sonAlex-he flies Pilatus-12NG flat glass screen-he hates his lately bought touch screen smart phone.
    It is getting a problem to push buttons or turn knobs when caught by weather-low over
    pine tops- but it’d be at all impossible with touch screens.

    Reply
  14.  Mark K. Crawford says:
    January 27, 2012 at 12:34

    Touch screens are just another way of marketing fufu electronic gadgetry. I do not like touch screens because my meat hook fingers normally cover multiple digits. I still own a Blackberry 9000 and simply love it. Knobs are great.

    Reply
  15.  Danny Bullard says:
    January 27, 2012 at 14:44

    Just be glad Garmin is continuing to innovate. Right or wrong with their commitment to touch screens, I applaud them for bringing this technology into the cockpit. Because if they don’t, some one else will. Also, if they don’t innovate, they could end up like Narco, Bendix King, etc. Remember when they were the gold standard? Their lack of innovation allowed Garmin to become the largest avionics provider in the world.
    I would much rather have Olathe, KS be the center of the avionics world than Beijing.

    Reply
    •  David Reinhart says:
      January 27, 2012 at 15:26

      Innovation for the sake of innovation has nothing to do with technology, it’s marketing. Garmin could have done a lot to improve the UI of their products w/o going to touch screens.

      Reply
  16.  Gordon Steffek says:
    January 28, 2012 at 12:28

    Adventure Pilot I-Fly 700 is a 7″ touch screen with a remote control.Yep a remote control for all you ham fisted pilots who fly in turbulence like me.I have a Garmin 430, button pushing dial flipping get lost, high dollor upgrades.With the I-fly every day VFR up grades$69.00,IFR$89.00 per year.I will take the bet that they are here to stay.Yes I said a remote control.Thanks to Someone who thinks down to earth.

    Reply
  17. Pingback: Touchscreens from now on. | High Altitude Flying Club

  18.  Scott Diffenbaugh says:
    January 30, 2012 at 10:48

    I fly both a 480 & the new 650. While still learning the 650, a few things come to mind. The touch screen is difficult in mod turbulence, but fortunately at least you can also change frequencies with the knob. Forget graphically editing-the screen is too small. Get the 750. Can not program a hold or flight plan to fly a radial outbound (both confirmed by Garmin). At this point I still prefer the 480. I would trade my 650 for a 480 in a minute if Garmin had not discontinued it.