The Next Big Thing in Automation – SVGS, Part 2

In our last posting we introduced what we think will be one of the most enabling aviation technologies of the coming decade, SVGS, which is short for Synthetic Vision Guidance System. With the fusion of enabling technology that already exists on many flight decks, it could enter every kind of aircraft cockpit faster than any of its precursor technology did. This is largely because SVGS is a dramatically improved, intuitive and simplified way to solve the problems created by low visibility outside the airplane. And if you think that it’s nothing more than a “nice-to-have gadget,” consider this: SVGS is no longer just about “increased SA”—with the reliability of precise position information, it will become relied on as navigation with position certainty.

In time, as aviation reporter John Croft has pointed out, SVGS will open up thousands of runway ends that are now only served by costly ground equipment and installed aircraft systems (think Cat II and Cat III runways). Already, special authorization for some operators to some runways are allowing crews to fly to minimums that previous technologies would not allow.

Because SVGS will come installed in next generation cockpits (some aircraft with SVGS are already being delivered), the technology will lead, not follow, the users who will have to manage the new technology. Sound familiar? That’s why we think it’s essential to begin now to consider the impact of SVGS on 21st-century airmanship.

NASA researchers have said that SVGS will “…offload pilots of their basic spatial awareness tasking…”—similar to the way other cockpit instruments have (beginning with the turn needle and ball, the artificial horizon, GPS and in many cockpits today, heads up displays and enhanced vision). Though these new tools also helped evolve safety, they came with abrupt costs; costs to the top line of every installation, and costs to the bottom line as a result of integrating the technology into actual operations. Complexity, complacency, loss of manual flying skills, and lack of proficiency in reversionary modes are just a few of the human factors issues already being studied by the manufacturing and research teams as a direct result of SVGS. 

It’s hard to foresee all of the issues that the new technology will generate for pilots in areas like training, oversight, proficiency, and other related areas. But we have put together a few questions for organizations to ask before acquiring the technology, and most certainly before putting it into operation (if the acquisition decision has already been made). This list includes:

  1. What will SVGS allow us to do in the future that we cannot do today?
  2. Does that new capability add to the value that our operation brings to our customers, our company, and the community of users?
  3. Does that new capability generate new risk to our existing margin of safety?
  4. How will we manage the new risk, and what’s our strategy for reversing the initial risk factors, transforming them into recognizable benefits?
  5. Is that new risk worth the cost of maintenance, training, quality control, and the practical requirements of proficiency?
  6. Do we have the expertise and processes long-term to ensure that we will always have the current equipment, policies, and practices that will ensure our compliance with regulations?

It is important to remember that this technology is evolutionary and it is essential that we be proactive, not reactive, with regards to learning, teaching, and using it. It will have an impact on the way we train due to the fact that the presentations that crews have been using for years will drastically change, as will the appearance of failure modes that are entirely new to every pilot.

Current instrument procedures will not change (that’s one of the benefits of SVGS—not having to alter existing instrument procedures while opening up thousands of runway ends), however the depiction and view that pilots see will be different. Although SVGS is presumed to be safer as it is providing a “real world” view, we need to ensure that pilots fully understand what they are seeing, and are able to recognize and manage failures.

The Automation Airmanship principle of Positive Flightpath Control that is embodied in the simple term “Fly First” will likely become increasingly important on the SVGS flight deck. Additionally, we will all need to ensure that we fully understand how to properly input data, to rigorously monitor, to balance workload, and to prioritize levels of automation while maintaining Situational and Mode Awareness (SMA). These are all related to 21st-Century principles of airmanship.

Likewise, The Automation Airmanship principle Logic Knowledge will need to be expanded by every pilot to include SVGS, expanding from the required FMS logic knowledge that we have dealt with in the past. Failure to understand this could lead to drastic results.

On the other hand, grasping the importance of these principles will likely multiply the benefits of SVGS for every pilot that flies behind its elegant display.

Think about it.

Until our next post, fly safe, and always, fly first


L.J. Prinzel and L..J Kramer, Synthetic Vision Systems. Research and Technology Directorate, Crew Systems and Operations Branch (D-318) Mail Stop 152, NASA-Langley Research Center. Hampton VA. 23681. USA. 2006.

John Croft: Uncertainty Dogs Next-Generation Synthetic Vision Systems. Aviation Week and Space Technology. May 1, 2015.

Advisory Circular 20-185: Airworthiness Approval of Synthetic Vision Guidance Systems. December 17, 2015. U. S Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration. 

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