Exclusive: Hill Helicopters blends form, function in new cockpit concept

Dan ParsonsBy Dan Parsons | April 21, 2021

Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 12 seconds.

Equipped with two huge digital screens, Hill Helicopters’ new digital cockpit concept looks fit for the bridge of a superhero-movie spaceship until you see the cyclic-and-collective flight control configuration common to conventional helicopters. 

By melding the ergonomic comfort and elegant instrumentation of a luxury car with the flight control and information presentation of an aircraft, Hill Helicopters has arrived at a completely redesigned cockpit for its clean-sheet HX50 five-seater

Hill Helicopters HX50 digital cockpit
Hill Helicopters’ digital cockpit concept for the experimental HX50 and commercial HC50 five-seat luxury helicopters. Hill Helicopters Photo

Over two decades of flying helicopters and driving luxury cars, Hill Helicopters founder and chief engineer Jason Hill became acquainted with the amenities present and lacking in both user experiences, he told Vertical in an exclusive interview. 

“The genesis of the design process was my 20 years of experience flying helicopters and driving premium cars . . . when you do both regularly the difference is stark and as an experienced engineer it was clear to me the main reason for this was not technical, but lack of real competition in the market,” Hill said. “Nobody had ever been forced to do it better and so the status quo has existed unchallenged for many years.”  

“It always seemed silly to me that climbing into and out of a helicopter was so awkward, clambering over the cyclic and then being presented with hardware in a vehicle costing much more than a house that looks better suited to secondhand earth-moving equipment,” he added. “We wanted the function of the flight controls to be delivered absolutely optimally but also elegantly in a manner befitting such an expensive product.”

The Hill Digital Cockpit (HDC) suite will be type approved for the experimental HX50 and type certified in the commercial HC50, but both will essentially be identical from a user perspective, Hill said.

“Our cyclic provides the ability to raise and lower the pilot and co-pilot grips independently so each occupant can position their stick comfortably on their thigh without impeding the other,” Hill said. “By lifting the cyclic up, pilots can slide in and out of the cockpit easily without need of amateur gymnastics.” 

A single control interface provides a clean, simple cockpit workflow with integration of iPad-based navigation. Hill Helicopters Photo

Mounting the cyclic in front of the pilot behind the PFD screen means that the cyclic grip can float over the pilot’s legs and not be encumbered by them, Hill said. The collective is integrated with the armrest and a new integrated pilot interface (IPI), promoting comfort and proper support for a pilot’s arm to allow better fine fingertip movements for control inputs to both the collective and the avionics.

Hill is singularly focused on enabling visual flight rules (VFR) helicopter pilot mission requirements, specifically point-to-point and off-airport flying at relatively low altitude. The cockpit is designed to provide only the information a pilot needs, when needed and reduce pilot workload. The system is not fly-by-wire, instead opting for the functional simplicity of computer-assisted hydraulic flight control system. 

Autopilot functions are provided by parallel electric actuators that are integrated into the flight controls to deliver haptic feedback to the pilots through the cyclic and collective. This allows power state and limits to be communicated by feel rather than looking at the gauge when operating in confined areas or during critical phases of flight.

The collective is integrated with the armrest and a new integrated pilot interface, promoting comfort and proper support for a pilot’s arm. Hill Helicopters Photo

Information is presented as clearly as possible and warnings are given in an “emotionally sensitive manner” that suggests the pilot take certain actions. Obstacles like wires and other air traffic are displayed on a synthetic vision overlaid on real-time video of the environment on the large digital displays.

The HDC user interface was designed in collaboration with Rightware and implemented with the company’s Kanzi software, the leading graphics technology used in the automotive industry for advanced visualization and forward-looking use cases in the modern digital cockpit. 

“It would be very easy to use every dynamic display and rendering tool in the toolbox to design a funky modern display that was over-done, cluttered, unusable and failed to deliver the primary objective of making flying easier by communicating the essentials clearly and reducing pilot workload,” Hill said. “Our design has been an exercise in restraint in which we have sought to make best use of the synthetic vision environment to improve pilot perception of things that are easy to miss in the real world, and then deliver the minimum obstruction to this representation during normal flying with crisp and concise representation of primary flight data.”

Plans are to have the HX50 flying by 2023, at which point the company will have spent five years and “very substantial” investment developing the HDC ergonomics and user interface, Hill said.

Hill Helicopters HX50
The HX50 helicopter features a composite structure and rotor system, optimized engine, reimagined avionics, and elevated interior design. Hill Helicopters Image

“The cost has been very substantial, but the cost of developing, approving and manufacturing HDC for the number of aircraft we have already sold has generated a significant saving over the alternative of buying a popular OEM system found in other five-seat turbines,” Hill said. 

The new cockpit currently exists somewhere between a concept and the real world, as many of the component technologies have been around for years. Hill is working with avionics manufacturer Avidyne Corp. to build the cockpit suite. Finnish software developer Rightware’s screen software Kanzi is onboard the Ford F-150 and Mustang and other vehicles.

“We have some work left to do on a handful of higher-level functions, such as wires, obstacles, traffic and weather, but all of this functionality is essentially native to Kanzi, so it’s implementation rather than invention,” Hill said. 

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