My Digital Cockpit Panel

Ok… Everybody’s interested in what I am doing for my airplane.  As a lot of you know (or might have heard) I am doing some interesting stuff for my RV8A Cockpit.  Yep… I’m going to be running Windows in my plane.  A lot of people are going to immediatly say “What???  Are you crazy???”  To which, I’ll answer… no… I know what I am doing.  I know how to write reliable software and I know how to run it reliably on my computer.  You see, what most people don’t get is that computers fail because of a very few number of problems.  Most of those problems are either due to failing hardware or software that is conflicting with other software.  In my design, I have a very basic OS… it’s a lightened version of XP.  And all my software is basic C#… no fancy Win32 Calls… no fancy 3rd party stuff and no off the shelf software.  It’s all basic and will be tested under extreme circumstances.  However, I’m not an idiot… and I’m not going to put my life on the line with just one computer.  My design has 3 independant computers… which vote on what to display.  They even have redundant power.  Cool, huh?  You can see pictures of an early prototype on my website…  This will give you an idea of what I’m doing.

Something else that is interesting, is how much interest I’ve recived in this project from aircraft manufactures and even gov’t agencies (like NASA.)  I’ve come to understand a lot about what makes planes fly… what makes the FAA tick, and how much gouging is being done to the flying public.  The system that I am developing will cost me under $4000 total… and you couldn’t buy one off the shelf for under $25000.  Oh, sure, there are cheap little displays out there, but they won’t do everything that mine does.  Mine is currently rendering 3d terrain maps… warning about obstacles (like towers, hills, etc.)  Contains the entire USGS Topo map for the US.  Contains the entire US map of airports, frequencies, charts, etc.  All of this… under $4000… actually, I’ve only invested $750 so far… but I’m working on the rest. 😉

The best is yet to come.  Stay tuned.


Comments (20)

  1. Holy crap.

    Fantastic work, keep us updated with more pics! 🙂

  2. Uwe Keim says:

    Recently I saw a TV magazine that had a film about those "computer-airplane-addicted" people like you :-).

    I was amazed to hear that there is such a huge network of people and e.g. that they even have virtual towers and weather forecasts and thinks like this.

    Pretty cool!

  3. SBC says:

    nice.. stick & rudder meet digits & LCD.. 🙂

  4. Walter Meyer says:

    Microsoft Small Aircraft Server 2005


    Microsoft Aircraft Server 2005 Enterprise Edition (for your 767’s and +)

  5. Patrick says:

    Uwe: I don’t know if you are suggesting this is Flight Simulator related, but apparently it’s not. This is for a real aircraft.. hence the "triple redundancy".

    Bill: As a commercial pilot myself, I applaud your efforts here. It looks fantastic and will definetly save you a lot of money!

    What does the FAA have to say about any of this?

  6. William J. Steele says:

    Well, the FAA doesn’t care at this point, as I am building an Experimental Aircraft… therefore, anything I decide to go in goes. However, I am keeping in mind the future in the design… and as such, am documenting every step of the way and making sure I do the very best job possible. I am not cutting corners, just looking at things in a new way… which sometimes can bite you.

    Here’s a case in point, there is an interesting discussion going with what the FAA deems as necessary equipment. They state in the FAR (The Federal Aviation Regulations) under reg 91.205 that for VFR flight, I just need the basic instruments, however, under IFR, you are required to have a "Gyroscopic Pitch and Bank Indicator," a "Gyroscopic Rate-Of-Turn Indicator" and a "Gyroscopic Direction Indicator." My hardware doesn’t not consist of Gyroscopes… instead I use Accelerametors, from which I can compute what a gyro would do, however, since it’s not a gyro, the question remains… is my equipment sufficient.

    Gyros for this type of application are very expensive ($150,) whereas an Accelerametor is very inexpensive… I can buy them for about $15 a piece.


  7. Diddy B. says:

    Incredible such a great project and intresting idea. Even though im not a pilot i am intrested in new OSes made to run normal machines.In all how long would u say it took u to combine those parts?

  8. Very cool stuff, Bill! I love innovative thought, and this definitely qualifies. Please continue to blog about this project.

  9. William J. Steele says:

    Let’s see… I’ve been working on this system for about a year now. I spoke up at Oshkosh, WI this last year for NASA on this and other "SATS" technologies. SATS is NASA’s Small Aircraft Transportation System – which is going to revolutionize small aircraft travel in the US. In June, in Danville, VA, we will be demonstrating flight ready equipment for a variety of technologies that will help general aviation. My software will be a part of that. (We are currently equipping a Piper Navajo with this system.)

    Now, actually building the equipment wasn’t really that long… the hard part was figuring out which hardware to use, and which to develop my self. Most of the equipment is off the shelf, however it’s not off the Airplane Parts Bin shelf! So I have to test each component individually to see if it can withstand the rigors of flight.

    One of the interesting things that I am working on is "right sizing" the buttons for the touch screen. This is easy to do on the ground, but while your being bounced around in IFR conditions, trying to remember what ATC is telling you is another story. I can actually limit what I am displaying in those situations so that the Pilot isn’t distracted so much… as well as make the text, buttons, etc larger and easier to see/use. I think there is some pretty patentable stuff there. 🙂


  10. I want one!

    Have you considered putting traditional instruments in, in case of a serious disaster? Then again, 3 computers makes it pretty redundant.

  11. William J. Steele says:

    Yes… I have considered putting in old style Steam Driven Guages. And I plan on installing 3… Airspeed Indicator, Altimeter and an Attitude Gyro. However, I’m going to install the smallest ones I can get, as I doubt they will ever get used. 😉


  12. Fred Pullen says:

    Read much Heinlein? Sounds like the "I-tell-you-three-times" systems he described. Of course, it may be just common sense . . . but I learned most of my common sense reading Heinlein. 🙂

  13. Hans says:

    Hi Bill,

    how are you filtering the output of those six accelleremeters, with a PID control per channel or perhaps Kalman filtering?



  14. Hans says:


    you need three to be able to tell which one is off…

    It was the same with old fashioned astronavigation used by shipping and WWII era long range aircraft: always three clocks/chronometers on board, to be able to tell which one is off. (Astronavigation methods are based on knowing time to the second).

    The interesting part is how Bill implemented his watchdog(s). My guess would be that he has running one on each processor…