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Apple Watch and avionics — where's the connection?

Jul 08. 2015 

On 24 April, Apple launched its latest innovation: the Apple Watch. After the iPod, iPhone and iPad, the company's new product may be set to revolutionise the wristwatch market. Could this new technology have a role in avionics, just as its predecessors inspired the Avionics 2020 cockpit? Onboard asked Sylvain Hourlier, Senior Expert in Human Factors at Thales, to review the new device and assess its potential in the aerospace industry.

Apple continues to make waves in the technology market, changing entire industries in the process. Although aerospace researchers and engineers are behind many of the innovations that have become part of our daily lives, the consumer electronics industry — with Apple leading the charge — is now consistently coming up with new ideas and technologies that then find their way onto aircraft. Thales embraced this trend in the design of its new-generation Avionics 2020 cockpit, and the arrival of the smartwatch could open up a whole host of new possibilities for flight crews.
Every time a new product comes out, we imagine how it could be adapted for other applications. Sylvain Hourlier, proud owner of an Apple Watch, describes the product as “beautifully designed, dependable and well put together, with some really useful features, like being able to take calls and reply to texts if you don’t have your phone handy”.
But like all new technologies, there’s room for improvement. “People tend to glance at their watches only briefly, whereas to use your Apple Watch you’ve got to hold your forearm in a palm-down position for several seconds, which can cause fatigue.”

The ultimate aviator's watch?

The arrival of the smartwatch takes human connectivity to a new level. Could smartwatch technology have applications in avionics? Sylvain Hourlier thinks it will. “And it’s important for Thales to take the lead,” he says, “because sooner or later, pilots will be wearing them anyway.”
Thales is already looking at ways to leverage the benefits of this new tool. “Multi-channel connectivity just added a new channel!" Sylvain says. He believes that small, wearable devices used in conjunction with conventional user interfaces open up exciting new opportunities in the avionics industry. “A pilot who needs to be away from the cockpit for any reason could monitor weather conditions, keep an eye on the flight systems and be alerted instantly if a problem arises. A smartwatch could also help pilots to communicate with controllers before take-off. It could make sure pilots and aircrews adhere to mandatory rest and recovery times, or even help them manage jetlag and irregular work patterns. It’s our job to shape the future by exploring every new opportunity that this new channel connectivity offers.”

Sylvain Hourlier reviews the Apple Watch as a senior expert in human factors and proud owner of an Apple Watch for a month now, what’s your informed opinion?

It’s pitched as a watch. Exceptional watches bear prestigious names. They're beautifully crafted timepieces with complex mechanisms that will still be working long after humans have disappeared from the earth. Apple is pushing the envelope by calling this a watch — but I can’t imagine leaving home without it and wearing my old watch instead!

Technology: It's beautifully designed, dependable and well put together. You can wear it in the shower. I haven’t tried it in the pool yet, but I hear it can survive that too!

Apple does it again: Just like the iPhone, first you want one because it’s new. Then, when the novelty wears off, you realise you can’t live without it. I'm sure there will be successive versions — the Apple Watch 3GS, 4, 4S, 5, 5S, 6, etc. — but we’ll have to wait and see.

Usability: They’ll have to rethink how it’s positioned on the wrist to make it easier to read without twisting your forearm around, which is not ideal, ergonomically speaking. It’ll be interesting to see what they do about that. In direct sunlight, it’s not that easy to read either. And if you wear it at night, it lights up as soon as you make the slightest movement, so you get a kind of nightclub effect in your bedroom! If you’re long-sighted, it’s no better than a normal watch, because without your reading glasses you can’t see a thing!

Health monitoring: There are lots of apps for exchanging health data, but this feature hasn’t been fully developed yet. There’s still some work to be done.

Life without the Apple Watch: Impossible, it’s part of my life. As a technology geek, I couldn’t do without it!

Find us on Twitter @thales_avionics and on our Youtube channel Thales Avionics Onboard.


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