Modernizing aircraft cockpits with automotive UI design knowhow

By Tuomas Pöyry, private helicopter pilot and vice president of sales at Rightware

I am turning left, to align the small airplane with the runway and start the final approach. To make sure I nail the landing, I need to stabilize the final approach, which means flying at the right speed, descent rate, and direction, with the airplane configured for landing – that is flaps at 30 degrees, carburetor heat on, landing lights on, etc. When my turn is finished and I can see the runway ahead, my hand reaches for the throttle to establish the correct decent rate and airspeed. I am shooting for about 60 knots, which translates to roughly 1600 RPM in this aircraft type. I check the airspeed indicator, which is almost always in the top-left corner of the instrument panel.

But then I run into trouble: where is the RPM gauge? The panel in this rental aircraft is full of dials, and there is no standard location for instruments. I quickly look outside as the ground is fast approaching, and I keep scanning to find the tachometer. Four to six seconds pass until I finally see the gauge and am able to correct the engine power. Those were some very long seconds that I should have spent focusing on the landing spot and monitoring my speed, my descent rate, wind conditions, and so on. I land uneventfully, but the experience leaves me thinking about the user interface of the old machine and what could be done better.

Almost a decade ago, I joined Rightware, the leading graphics software supplier for digital displays in the automotive cockpit. About the same time, in 2011, I obtained my private pilot’s license for airplanes. I am completely hooked on aviation: it is an exhilarating experience which can only be understood once you try it. It provides the perfect way to unwind and relax amid a hectic professional life. The intersection of my hobby and my work gets me thinking a lot about how the user interfaces in aircraft can be improved. In fact, my exposure to the variety of user interfaces and instruments in aircraft has recently increased, as I earned my private pilot’s license for helicopters in 2020.

The inconsistent user interface layouts and outdated instruments in helicopters present an even greater safety challenge: the object in flight is inherently unstable and will go belly-up very quickly if the pilot loses focus. As I make a final backyard approach for a Sunday brunch visit, there is absolutely no extra time to search for the right information or the right instrument. Priority number one is to make sure I don’t hit anything (like the house or the garden) while keeping the helicopter within its safe flight parameters.


Helicopter Gauges Today


Imagine my excitement when my work and my newest passion collided! In late 2020, Dr. Jason Hill, founder of Hill Helicopters, contacted Rightware to ask if we could help redesign and implement a new user experience for the helicopter cockpit. We jumped at the opportunity to apply our design team’s insights, gained from working on automotive UI projects over the last decade with most major automakers around the globe, to this challenging new environment. The Hill Digital Cockpit (HDC) is a completely reimagined flying experience with two wide, full-color displays, which provide a “clear graphical display of flight information only when it is needed, delivering new levels of simplicity and profound workload reduction.”

Our Kanzi Services design team uses our own Kanzi Studio for advanced prototyping and deep conceptual work. Working on the HDC project, our team received basic requirements and design guidelines from Hill Helicopters and delivered a series of rapid iterations, ultimately turning the designs into a fully functional multi-screen HMI prototype.


Hill Digital Cockpit powered by Kanzi 2


The final design corrects many of the deficiencies in current helicopter cockpits. With Kanzi, we are able to render 3D terrain maps in real time, with seamless continuity across the displays, allowing the pilot to visualize the surroundings and potential obstacles in the flight path from within the cockpit. Not only are all the instruments and gauges beautifully designed, but they also highlight all the relevant information at the right time, easing the mental strain on the pilot. Warnings are delivered visually and with supporting textual information, and in a way that does not cause undue panic.


Hill Digital Cockpit powered by Kanzi 3


Many of these HMI features, while new in aircraft, are very familiar to our automotive UI design team. They have extensive experience in solving challenges in complex new use cases, such as the integration of mapping and navigation services across a multi-screen cockpit; rendering contextual Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) scenes in real time; and designing instruments and displays for safety. They do this while delivering sophisticated designs ranging from flat 2D to advanced 3D visualizations.

I have celebrated many professional milestones in my time at Rightware, but the day Hill Helicopters revealed the HDC design to the world definitely ranks at the top. A word of caution: if you read about the Hill Digital Cockpit, watch Jason Hill talk about the rationale for the new user experience, view the full HMI concept video, and hear Pilot Yellow, aka Misha Gelb, share his excitement about our collaboration, you will likely want to start your private helicopter pilot’s training as well.

See you up there!