Published in Aviation Week & Space Technology, April 7, 2017
Republished by permission of Aviation Week & Space Technology

Hurdles to multinational approval, combined with the increasingly integrated and connected nature of cockpits, are pushing certification costs higher and affecting schedules. For Rockwell Collins, these factors have for the first time caused certification costs to outweigh product development costs.

“In past years, 75 cents of each dollar for a development program would be spent on engineering and 25 cents on certification,” says Kent Statler, chief operating officer for Rockwell Collins commercial systems. “We have now swapped over to where it costs more to certify than to develop the system.”

Relief will come in the form of risk­-based certification processes, a direction authorities such as the FAA are slowly moving toward, as well as streamlining of certifications among international regulators. “In the big scheme they’re making progress, but it could go faster,” says Statler.

The Certification Conundrum

  • Simple user interfaces require complex system interdependencies
  • Traditional certification processes penalize complexity
  • Relief could come with risk-­based certification processes

Recent experiences with certification programs highlight the issues as Rockwell Collins readies the architectural design of its next big­-ticket flight deck, informally called Fusion Next. Statler would not provide details on the integrated flight deck, other than to say it will prominently feature technologies from three areas where the company is heavily investing: user interfaces, head­-up guidance system advances, including combined vision systems, and connected aircraft technologies.

Statler notes that while moving from federated to integrated and connected cockpit architectures has cut weight and power and allowed advances in human­-machine interfaces (HMI)—including touch screens, voice control, applications and services—the downside is that the increased complexity and interdependencies of the systems and elements have complicated certification.

Rockwell Collins is heavily invested in the upside. The company was the first to certify touch screens for the primary flight displays for commercial aircraft, with a version of Fusion for the Beechcraft King Air, an advance later parlayed into a win on the Boeing777X, which will have five large touch­screen displays.

Statler says Rockwell Collins originally focused on touch technologies based on consumer behavior, and the prospects for simplifying training for the new generation of pilots coming into the cockpit. “When we did the King Air embedded display system launch, one of the key areas was to reduce the learning curve and depth of knowledge for newer pilots,” he says. “The more pilots get exposed to it, the more they like it. Even the older-­generation pilots— those who say they’ll never use it and want the knobs—within 2­3 flights are hooked and use it as their primary HMI.” He says the company is also looking to add voice control to reduce pilot workload.

The company was the first to certify touch screens for the primary flight displays for commercial aircraft, with a version of Fusion for the Beechcraft King Air, an advance later parlayed into a win on the Boeing777X, which will have five large touch­screen displays.

The HMI improvements perfectly illustrate the certification puzzle—that a feature so easy to use can be so difficult to get approved. “That is a business model shift we are seeing take place in the industry,” says Statler. “It’s an interesting conundrum, because it costs so much to build the systems that are so easy to use.”

Statler says what is needed is an evolution of the certification processes, which have largely remained entrenched in the days of the federated flight deck, and are also duplicated across borders.

“The problem is that we have to go through four agencies to recertify a flight management system that has been in the marketplace for 25 years, and over the 25 years, has probably generated less than a handful of safety reports,” says Statler. “It’s well under the [failure] requirement at the system level, and yet we are still going back through these systems over and over by different managements. It drives tremendous waste into the system.

“Industry gets frustrated with reapplication—just because you take it into a new market, a new airplane governed by a new certification agency that wants to go back through the certification as if it is an unproven system,” he adds. “The amount of cost is now 1:1 development to certification, and much of that value is recertifying what has already been certified.”

The problem is that we have to go through four agencies to recertify a flight management system that has been in the marketplace for 25 years, and over the 25 years, has probably generated less than a handful of safety reports

Statler says the move to a risk­-based certification—which ensures that design processes are in place to make a system safe—as well as better cross­-border cooperation are the ultimate solutions to the conundrum. The FAA and European Aviation Safety Agency recently moved to a risk-­based certification process for light aircraft. “I give the FAA credit,” says Statler. “They’ve made progress.”

But he notes that such a big change will take time. “When you shift to a risk-­based approach, it’s a totally different mindset,” he says. “You focus on the risks, not every last dot. You allow the process to be certified more than the output of the process.”

As far as the cross­-border certification issues, the required solutions appear to be more on the human side.

“The FAA itself is a bureaucracy, and that bureaucracy interacts with other bureaucracies—the European Aviation Safety Agency, Transport Canada, Brazil’s ENAC and others—and there’s a complexity [in the] level of opinions on what’s good and what’s good enough,” says Statler. “It’s a trust [issue] and it’s a soft issue,” he notes, “not a hard tangible issue.”

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