L-3 SmartDeck:  Pilot Centric, Intuitive and Innovative

L-3 Avionics’ integrated avionics suite emerges as leading avionics contender for general and business aviation aircraft

Credit: L-3 Avionics Systems

SmartDeck is here, finally.  The road was tortuous, but this next generation integrated avionics system promises to offer capabilities that will set new standards for part 23 operators and possibly beyond in the future.

G2 Solutions recently had an opportunity to discuss the new SmartDeck with Larry Riddle, Vice President of Business Development with L-3 Avionics Systems, and asked him how SmartDeck differs from other avionics systems offerings.

A long process

As Riddle points out, SmartDeck development was a complex process:

”A few years ago when L-3 acquired Avionics systems from Goodrich Aerospace (note: March 2003), we had a system at that time that was essentially a me-too product, Garmin and Avidyne already had their introductory offerings at the time.  So we wanted to step back, and ask do we want to be third in the marketplace and be like everybody else, or go back, start over and really come out with something that is going to differentiate ourselves? We focused on what is going to, how and what, differentiate ourselves apart from the other folks and their introductory offerings.”

The timing was indeed critical for L-3. The company had the capability to develop what Riddle qualifies above as a “me-too” product, however, with few programs available, and Garmin, Avidyne and to a lesser extent, Chelton Flight Systems, already occupying the market space, it became clear that a me-too product would have likely failed to attract sufficient interest from the OEM marketplace.   So, as Adrienne Stevens, President of L-3 Avionics mentioned during NBAA last year “We developed SmartDeck from scratch.”  This approach would prove prophetic, as it would lead L-3 to examine the system design from a pilot standpoint, and how new technologies could help all pilots fly their aircraft safer, easier and with more confidence.

As Larry Riddle explains, ease of use quickly became primordial with initial SmartDeck design:

“Something has got to be easy to use, we see it all the time with consumer electronics: razor phone, blackberry, things are getting easier.  You typically get a thick manual that nobody ever reads because you figure, I have got time at the airport, I have got time at home or somewhere else, I will figure the system out, it is not going to blow up.  Worst comes to worst, you shut the system off and you start over.

We wanted to start out to make sure that Smartdeck was easy to use. Easy to use meaning lots of information. The way you get to that is to have a shallow menu structure and make it intuitive. The person or persons that want can sit and push buttons; they can get affirmation by pushing a few buttons.  SmartDeck will let you know that you are heading in the right direction.  So, intuitiveness and easy to use right out of the gate are key differentiators from the other systems that are out there today.”

From what G2 Solutions was able to see during NBAA 2007 and heard from other sources, we feel SmartDeck surpasses existing systems currently in service and can rival some of the higher end systems from a human factors standpoint. Riddle indeed believes that SmartDeck could rival other high-end systems from Collins and Honeywell.

A new look that feels “next generation”

From a visual standpoint, SmartDeck looks good, certainly as good as one of the best looking systems out there, the Chelton EFIS (incidentally not a fully integrated system).  This is a view Riddle strongly echoes:

“ The system looks great, it does not have a lot of knobs, does not have a lot of buttons, it has awesome graphics, it looks like a high-end part 25 system, and it is very pleasing to the eye.”

He also makes a very good point demonstrating how far the avionics industry has come since the arrival of glass in the 1990s.

“In the GA world, avionics helps sell airplanes. The avionics are the toys the owner operator is going to play with.  Much like today when you go into Best Buy and try a new laptop or PC.  The question is, which is the one that brings me the most information and is easier to use?

That’s why you want the pilot to remember how to use it, to be pilot centric, and a system that does what the pilot wants.

Approach to design

To get to the desired level of intuitiveness, Riddle tells us L-3 conducted extensive testing of the Smartdeck system with a representative group of potential users:

“In order to have a pilot-centric system, we did thousands of hours of human factor evaluation. From high-time pilots, to no-time pilots, to develop that intuitiveness, not just a bunch of CFIs, but truly for someone who is learning to fly, how do you create that intuitiveness?”


Throughout the design process, the L-3 avionics design team continually tested form and function with active pilots and a team of human factors specialists. The control buttons, display settings and visual cues were all carefully developed as part of the company’s intuitive design philosophy.


How does SmartDeck compare with the most widely used Part 23 integrated Systems? Favorably according to Riddle and again, he is quick to point at the focus on ease of utilization of a SmartDeck suite compared with competitor’s systems:

“When compared with the G1000, it has as much or more information. It is a simpler system to use, and provides just as much or more information than other products. It is completely integrated, unlike Avidyne, who does not have an integrated system.  Of all the complex things that SmartDeck does, like the G1000, it is simpler to use, looks better than Garmin, with fewer buttons.”

Safety and redundancy are also key elements of the Smartdeck design philosophy.  The unit comes standard with dual ADHRs, and has safety features new for this category of systems:

“It has a databus with very high bandwidth capability; if something happens to the databus, it has to happen over three times before the databus goes down. It has level B certification, meaning you are going to have overall better reliability, the integrity of the information is much stronger than the other systems certified to a lesser degree.”

Pilot-Centric Focus

This pilot-centric focus is clearly reminiscent of the work conducted by Honeywell and Dassault Aviation in the early 2000s that led to the development of the EASy integrated avionics suite, which has set new standards of situational awareness and intuitiveness for operators of higher end business jets.  Larry Riddle expands on the issue of treatment of information and safety, and minimizing heads down time:

“How do you get to the information?  Systems out there have a lot of information, but how do you get to that information?  You might have a pilot who is spending time head down trying to get to that information, 5-6 layers deep into that menu structure trying to change the way his/her MFD looks or trying to transition to an approach, much of it is spent head down.

 Avoiding head down time goes back to a human factor issue. That’s what we looked at with the shallow menu structure; you are not going to do anymore that three clicks before you are going to bottom out on that menu; which means that the information is either there or you have got to push another button.  So you are not getting buried in head down time, trying to get to that information, this very shallow menu structure keeps the pilot head up.”

Credit: L-3 Avionics Systems



L-3’s approach to training followed a traditional course but also relies on ease of system use to remedy the varying levels of experience of SmartDeck users.

 “Training is always a factor, you are still going to have the POH, but we believe that training time is going to be significantly cut from somebody who is currently getting checked out in G1000 vs. a SmartDeck. We will still have to go through the whole familiarization piece with Smartdeck but I guarantee you -  after somebody takes a cursory review of the Smartdeck training, he/she will be ready to roll.”

 To quote one of Riddle’s favorite examples:

 “It goes to the story of a guy who picks up a brand new airplane, he has been through the OEM sponsored ground school, spent a couple hours with a check pilot to make sure that he is safe and competent in his new airplane.  Now the rubber hits the road, check pilot is gone, the guy was so giddy about taking this brand new airplane home that he does not quite remember everything the check pilot told him.  Now, he is sitting there with the Smartdeck system, how can I do this?

I guarantee you that this pilot is not going to have any problems with being confident, while pushing a few buttons, getting affirmation that the flight plan is being loaded, he can see it on the MFD. Push a button, and you are ready to go.  You do not have to worry.”


Single Source competition


One of the key findings of G2 Solutions report AB071 light business jets avionics was the radical transformation of the light jets avionics landscape over the past decade and the emergence of a new dominant player, Garmin, in the General Aviation segment (See General Aviation Avionics report to be published by G2 Solutions in early February).  When asked about the timing of L-3 market entry with Smartdeck and Garmin’s market dominance, Riddle elaborates in those terms:

 “OEMs for the most part are very smart.  Not only, does it gives you no choice, it is just Garmin, you have no other choice for Part 23 (integrated suites).  Everybody has a cookie cutter approach and that’s not good for anybody.

It becomes a monopoly, there is no competition. Competition is what drives innovation, getting better prices and in turns help drive and grow the market.
If prices go up in General Aviation you are certainly not going to get more people involved in it. Competition breeds all kinds of good things.

Aircraft OEMs see this and understand that SmartDeck is out here and is something new. With software and all these things evolving a lot faster, OEMs are beginning to think that they can’t be fully married to somebody who is not going to lead the field in innovation and does not have an aggressive roadmap for innovation, which is what competition is supposed to drive.


L-3 as a one-stop shop avionics supplier

With much of the avionics design and integration work now having migrated from the aircraft OEM to the avionics OEM, how does Larry Riddle view L-3 Avionics Systems market competitiveness?

“Being vertically integrated is an advantage in this world because we can supply everything to get that airplane flying, not only just baseline hardware such as the SmartDeck system, but we can also supply the standby instrumentation, situation safety product like Skywatch (Traffic Avoidance), Stormscope (Weather), TAWS and EVS (IRIS), we can supply all that stuff.  We then become a one-stop shopping solution for OEMs, and all these systems can be integrated at the avionics OEM level rather than somebody like Cessna or Beechcraft getting all these parts from a myriad of suppliers and trying to figure out how it all works.


Smartdeck’s Central Console Unit (CCU)

L-3 has decided to add an additional screen fully dedicated to the flight planning and communications display functions.  It is obvious that a separate screen significantly contributes to decluttering the MFD, while creating a visual and physical “center of gravity” for the flight planning and management functions in particular.

 “The CCU came out getting mostly good reviews, not all aircraft can physically accept it, but human factors played a role, you mention decluttering, and the CCU helps that, it is another version of a high end FMS system.

Credit: L-3 Avionics Systems

The CCU is not a limiting element with regards to the exportability of the system onto other airframes.  Some OEMs will not want it, and that is fine” explains Riddle


The future of SmartDeck

While not confirming it, Larry Riddle clearly hinted that Smartdeck's footprint would likely expand soon  “We are talking with several aircraft OEMs”. 

It is likely that the level of performance offered by SmartDeck could attract interest from light jets manufacturers such as Spectrum, Adam or even existing Garmin customers.

In terms of functionality and value for money, SmartDeck compares very favorably with a system like the new Honeywell APEX, which is incidentally three times as expensive.


As for future technology insertions, Larry Riddle is very clear as to L-3’s ambitions:

“ADS-B is of course on the roadmap, EVS is there as well with our IRIS system, we will include SVS as well at some point.  Combined with our sister company ACSS, we have a lot of tools in our toolbox.”  

As to a future with part 25 aircraft:

Smartdeck is a scalable system, once we get out there delivering the part 23 solution, we will establish our credibility; so when you start talking to part 25 OEMs they know that you already have a pedigree product that is performing well.  It is a scalable product meaning it is not going to take that much to get it into a part 25 application.”


Credit: L-3 Avionics Systems



The standard SmartDeck system consists of one or two Primary Flight Display(s) (PFD) depending upon configuration, a Multifunction Display (MFD), a Center Console Unit (CCU) display system, two Air Data Attitude and Heading Reference Systems (ADAHRS), two data concentrators, two magnetometers, two WAAS GPS receivers, a Flight Display Controller (FDC), two Nav/Com radios with a PS Engineering audio panel, a transponder and the S-TEC IntelliFlight™ 1950 integrated Digital Flight Control System (DFCS). SmartDeck interfaces with the L-3 Avionics SkyWatch® collision avoidance system, Landmark® terrain awareness warning system (TAWS B), Stormscope® lightning detection system and IRIS™ Infrared Imaging System, among other avionics technologies. Since SmartDeck is a fully integrated system, the configuration can be customized for different customers and platforms.  


For more information about SmartDeck visit:




SmartDeck Videos (WMP)





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