It seems like ever since the iPhone was introduced, touchscreens are everywhere. From the aforementioned smartphones, to tablets, to TV remotes, to toasters – if it doesn’t have a touchscreen, it’s not “new.”
Of course, touchscreen capable displays and controllers are now finding their way into cockpits. And there in, we feel at least, lies a potential problem. While touchscreens are great for things (like phones), that you hold in your hand, tapping and swiping a screen can pose a bit of an operational challenge if the ‘buttons’ are continually moving around – like when maneuvering an aircraft for example.
The Problems with Touchscreen Avionics
I’ve checked out the touchscreen systems from Garmin and Rockwell Collins, and while they’re great solutions in calm air; throw in a bit of chop and I’ll take the solid feel a button or knob any day. Especially in a helicopter or special missions aircraft.
Another issue with current touchscreen technologies is, at least what we’ve seen in our tests, they don’t offer the high level of ruggedness avionics used in military and special missions applications require. During our tests, the high levels of structural vibration play havoc with their functionality.
And while trying to press an on-screen icon in turbulence is an obvious problem, an even bigger challenge one faced by every military and special missions pilot is the simple fact that wear gloves when they fly.
If you don’t think that’s a problem, try dialing your smartphone with gloved hands. And if it’s hard with the phone in your hand, imaging trying to do it while maneuvering an aircraft with one arm extended to the instrument panel.
It’s not only difficult it’s potentially dangerous. In our tests, the typical touchscreen operation requires that the pilot keep their attention focused down on the display way too long. Pilots need to keep their heads up and eyes out.
And that’s doubly important when you’re flying a helicopter. Unless the aircraft is equipped with an autopilot or a Genesys HeliSAS Stability Augmentation Systems, you want your hands on the stick and cyclic – not hunting and pecking on a touchscreen.
To Touchscreen or Not to Touchscreen?
There’s no question that touchscreens have their place in general and business aircraft cockpits – especially when you can limit your flights to calm, good weather days with no turbulence. But, when it comes to hard IFR or special missions applications, we just don’t see touchscreens being up to the task.
Will that change? Only time and evolving technologies will tell.
Until next time, fly safely,