Are Touchscreens Here to Stay?
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.