When Rockwell Collins launched its new Fusion avionics system on the Bombardier XRS (now the Global 6000) at NBAA 2007, I was completely mistaken about what this new avionics suite was all about. It was hardly my fault though. New products in our industry have always been associated with new stuff, new displays, radios, radars, antennas and so forth, so I naturally assumed that Fusion was more of the same, a product revamping that would take the company’s already highly regarded Pro Line 21 system and give it a shiny upgrade.
As nice as that sounds, this view sold Fusion short. The new product suite, as it turned out, wasn’t about products at all, but it was, rather, a new way of thinking about avionics, an architectural and systems approach that, it’s no exaggeration to say, has changed the way that Rockwell Collins thinks about avionics and the way, increasingly, that its customers do as well.
The genesis of Fusion was something called Flight 2, a project that Collins did early last decade on the Air Force’s KC-135 tanker program, work that found its way onto the Boeing 787 and Airbus A380 and A350.
The magic of Fusion, said Joel Otto, senior director of commercial systems marketing for Rockwell Collins, is that it is flexible, scalable and hardware-agnostic. This range of characteristics, Otto said, gives Rockwell Collins “the ability to create a range of configurations and solutions that span that spectrum of aircraft while bringing the capabilities that are embodied in [Fusion] software across those configurations relatively simply.”
Just how the company arrived at this kind of architecture sounds simple in theory, especially in retrospect, but it required a companywide commitment to the new framework. “It’s primarily a software-based architecture,” Otto explained, “and it’s a networked and modular-based system too, so it’s much easier to add these building blocks in without disrupting the highly integrated system that already exists.”
This flexibility in terms of hardware and scale have allowed Rockwell Collins to create wildly different-looking suites with very different feature sets and capabilities without having to start from scratch each time out. “We’ve gotten to the point where the software is independent of the hardware configuration,” Otto said. “Our primary touch-screen displays, for instance, that we had at AirVenture and NBAA last year with embedded FMS and other avionics functions, were all Fusion, with all of its functionalities rehosted.”
To make this happen, Rockwell Collins engineers migrated the software to a new hardware configuration, such as the company did with the touch displays it showed off last year and just as it has done with the version of Fusion that will soon go into existing Hawker Beechcraft King Airs as Pro Line 21 upgrades. “We’ve tailored [that version of Fusion] with new interfaces,” Otto said, “to enhance single-pilot operation, in part by simplifying the flight management interface by making it more icon-based and more intuitive for that segment of the market,” though Otto added that some of the single-pilot features are likely to “migrate” up to larger platforms over time.