Panoramic display in F-35 Joint Strike Fighter sparks industry debate on the size of cockpit screens

By John Keller

FARNBOROUGH, England–The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is setting new standards for combat aircraft avionics with its 8-by-20-inch panoramic cockpit display. This large active-matrix liquid crystal display (AMLCD) has the avionics industry talking about whether it's a good idea to place so much cockpit information on one display.

Proponents of the F-35's Panoramic Display, designed by L-3 Display Systems in Alpharetta, Ga., point out its flexibility, intuitive touch-screen use, and ability to present the F-35 Lightning II pilot with all the information he needs, quickly, and without overwhelming him with too much information. Detractors, however, contend that one big display in a military cockpit poses a single-point-of-failure risk, one that distributing several different displays throughout the cockpit, rather than relying on one big display, does not.

The 8-by-20-inch panoramic display in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is sparking debate on how many displays are necessary in tactical aircraft.

Despite the debate, however, large panoramic cockpit displays are receiving increasing attention from display manufacturers and avionics systems designers. L-3 officials had long considered themselves to be the only viable manufacturer of displays this large that are rugged and redundant enough for avionics use. Now, however, Elbit Systems Ltd. in Haifa, Israel, is getting into the game with its CockpitNG system. Both displays were on display in July at the Farnborough International Airshow in Farnborough, England.

The L-3 Panoramic Display for the F-35 is divided in two electronically, a design that offers full redundancy that enables the display to continue functioning in case of component failure or battle damage. One company representative explains that L-3's Panoramic Display can withstand a puncture or a crack, and still offer all its features on only one side. In a pinch, L-3 officials point out, the F-35 pilot still can rely on his helmet-mounted display in case of catastrophic avionics failure.

Detractors, however, privately question that wisdom. Military aviation is an industry that avoids risk, and multiple-display redundancy is a deeply ingrained cultural value. Using just one big cockpit display, as the F-35 does, runs counter to much that experts have known throughout their careers. This display represents a paradigm shift in military avionics, and as such, it is treated in some quarters with suspicion and skepticism.

These cultural differences within the avionics display industry, however, have not deterred Elbit, which is offering the 22-inch-diagonal CockpitNG for consideration in military and commercial aircraft programs and upgrades, particularly for the Boeing F-15 Eagle jet fighter. Boeing is trying to position a stealthy new version of the F-15, called Silent Eagle, as an affordable alternative to the F-35.

Getting into the large cockpit display business is not easy. The cost of entry is immense, with the amount of testing and evaluation, as well as the government certification, necessary to qualify these cockpit subsystems for use in military and commercial aircraft.

Elbit officials say they have no firm customer for the CockpitNG, while L-3's Panoramic Display still is exclusively on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. While skeptics claim that Elbit is simply trying to set itself up as a second-source supplier for the F-35 primary display, other cockpit designers may be giving this large display a second look. Boeing may have particular interest–particularly for foreign military sales–if Elbit's large display could make its Silent Eagle an even more attractive option to the Lockheed Martin F-35.

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July 2015
Volume 26, Issue 7

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