I'm Sorry Dave. I'm Afraid I Can't Do That

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Yup, I couldn't throw off that line from 2001: A Space Odyssey when one of Garmin's engineers was demonstrating the voice recognition function in the new GMA35/GTN series we're covering today by remote control from Reno. I could imagine myself getting into an argument with my semi-intelligent audio panel: "Listen, you pile of transitorized crap, I said switch to comm 1! And my name's not Dave!" "I'm sorry you're upset, Dave, but I don't understand your command." It's all good fun…till the thing does something you don't want it to.

Not that I'm suggesting that voice recognition won't work or isn't a good idea. Field experience will confirm either or both. For the big-picture folks among us, the larger question is what does this kind of automation do for the operation of a light aircraft or the flight experience itself? The reason to ask this is that where this is eventually going is voice control for more functions in the airplane, from basic control setting to comm management to emergency procedures. It's easy to see the potential.

But what does it do for you? This brings to mind another movie: Wall-E. That's the one where robotics have so insinuated themselves into the functions of everyday life that humans have been reduced to pudgy, poorly toned organic blobs that traverse the physical world in bins propelled by conveyor belts. The conveyors are overseen by…robots.

Voice actuation gets down to two things: How you engage with the physical world and whether you're a talker or a tool user. Do you prefer texting/instant messaging or would you rather pick up the phone. (I do both and tilt either way depending on the task at hand.)

To me, the test-for-success is whether such innovations erect or remove the natural barriers between your desires and letting the machines you operate know your desires. Ideally, you should be able to think it and have it done. The voice recognition in the new Garmin products doesn't do that, but it gets a step closer to doing that. Theoretically, like a fighter pilot processing data through a HUD and tickling the piccolo on a HOTAS, you can keep your eyes outside the cockpit while changing frequencies or performing other tasks that would otherwise require heads-down time. You improve your information uptake and raise the threshold for overload. Theoretically, at least.

Whether this is good or bad depends on whether manual manipulation of a knob or key is part of the way you think, a necessary bit of tedious connection you consider important to being engaged with the machine. Another analogy is dictation versus typing. I absolutely cannot dictate; I have to type to think through what I want to say. It's just part of my cognitive process, limited and flawed though it may be. (I also hate automatic transmissions; give me a five speed, please. It has to do with engagement.)

On the other hand, I despise knob twirling, especially for frequency changes or—the worst—scrolling in a long flightplan. At the least, the GTNs remove this barrier and reduce the tedium. It's not just a happy to glad change. It's more fundamental than that.

But as for the voice recognition, this is why I think the GTNs represent a subtle, incremental technical step forward, but what could be a rather larger ergonomic step forward. I think it's 60/40 on whether pilots will adapt or find the thing just a software writer's parlor trick, with the 60 percent on the plus side. Either way, Garmin has launched an interesting experiment.

Comments (30)

I have an early early version of voice commands in my car. When I picked it up, the dealer said not to bother using it because I'd only end up yelling at the car and looking crazy to other drivers.

Being a gadget guy, I just had to try. The dealer was right; the most common response was a very pleasant British lady saying "Command not understood".

I think the real problem with voice commands is remembering the exact syntax for the limited set of commands. A limit is required because there's not enough memory or processing power in these machines to cover all the possible ways a pilot would say "switch to comm one".

This one I'd like to see
Garmin - "Traffic Ho!"
Me - "Where away?"
Garmin - "two points off the starboard bow"

That I could use.

Posted by: Jerry Plante | March 24, 2011 7:47 AM    Report this comment

Little nautical flavor in the cockpit. I like it. You could add "cast off tiedowns" to your list of commands.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 24, 2011 7:58 AM    Report this comment

For button-fumbling white-knucklers struggling to use a newly installed avionics suite (which is likely 80%+ of the mediocre pilot population)a voice command feature set could be a useful crutch when trying to overcome the learning curve - as long as it works without flaw.

Posted by: LARRY ANGLISANO | March 24, 2011 8:30 AM    Report this comment

Another point; I'm a little concerned about the dumbing down of avionics that seems to be following the general dumbing down of Americans. Case in point, what started out as a good idea - the "blue button" to engage the autopilot and return you to straight and level - has morphed into this shadowy electronic creature in the back or your panel watching your every move and just waiting for you to exceed what some programmer in Olathe thinks is "normal flight parameters" and taking over. It used to be the other way around; George would give up trying to maintain the desired attitude when the going got rough.

What's next? The GPS monitors fuel consumption and when fuel on board gets down to an hour directs the autopilot to steer for an airport with fuel? Will it make a reasonable power-off glide and land? Will a little monkey come out of the glove box and hand you a banana?

Posted by: Jerry Plante | March 24, 2011 8:43 AM    Report this comment

It is when ATC start to give voice commands to the aircraft systems (perfectly feasible technically) that pilots should get worried.

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | March 24, 2011 9:00 AM    Report this comment

How about it just lets you run out of gas, but automatically e-mails a prepared ASRS form through its dedicated datalink? Or maybe a red button labled "But I Want to Crash."

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 24, 2011 9:07 AM    Report this comment

**shrug** **yawn**

Functionally, what does the GTN give me that I don't already have with my MX-20/430W? As a pilot I have to manage the control my aircraft about the 6 axes of roll/yaw/pitch/latitude/longitude/altitude while working in the ATC system, managing the engine, and managing airspeed/energy while not hitting any other aircraft or terrain/obstacles. The GTN, while a nicer new operating system, does the lat/long/ATC/terrain/traffic also, just like my 430W/MX-20 does. Very nice. But very expensive.

Having been a new implementer of the Garmin GTS800 that works when it wants to and other times it doesn't, I'll let others work out the bugs and see if the touch screens can last for 20 years. Oh, wait, then it'll be too late because it'd be obsolete and Garmin won't support it, like they just announced for my MX-20 that I only bought 7 years ago (And here I thought it'd last for 20 years like my ARC stack did. Oops.)

Nah. I'll pass.

Posted by: David Rosing | March 24, 2011 9:43 AM    Report this comment

** WARNING -- Self Confessed Gadget guy commenting **

Well, I'm kind of disappointed that Garmin came out with this announcement, only because that my C-182 is in the shop now getting a GNS-430 put in. At first, my Dad was scared of having an all-in-one "wonder box", but now that they've been out a few years, he's come around.

I would love to have the new technology and the new screens look wonderful, but I really don't have $11K to throw at a new all-in-one "wonder box", although, I wonder what kind of a loan I could get :-)

It seems like a great follow-up to the vernable GNS-430/530 series.

Posted by: R. Doe | March 24, 2011 10:08 AM    Report this comment

I'm not sure voice control is really all that appropriate for complex tasks, but for simple stuff like entering & switching comm freqs it would really seem handy, particularly during turbulence or high workload periods.A plus factor for cockpit applications is that typically a close-talking microphone is being used, which makes accurate decoding an easier task for the software….less likely to get a “What was that, Dave?” from HAL.Of course if they put it in & you don’t like it, you can always ignore it. First thing I did on my Garmin was turn off those “Terrain-pull up” announcements that were repeatedly triggered when maneuvering into any mountain valley airport.

Posted by: John Wilson | March 24, 2011 11:53 AM    Report this comment

P.S. Forgot to include the story, hopefully apocryphal, about the pilot who, during the takeoff roll, glanced over to his co-pilot who was obviously in a funk, and said “Hey, cheer up”. The co-pilot roused himself, responded “Roger, gear up” and……

Posted by: John Wilson | March 24, 2011 12:02 PM    Report this comment

It would be great if you were hand-flying at mach 2.3 in controlled airspace. It's completely unnecessary for GA/Commercial when plodding along on autopilot for hours on end.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | March 24, 2011 1:40 PM    Report this comment

>>>It's completely unnecessary for GA/Commercial

Posted by: LARRY ANGLISANO | March 24, 2011 1:50 PM    Report this comment

If it works as well as the voice recognition progams frequently encounted at "customer service", I'll pass. Way too much frustration at possibly critical times.

Posted by: Dale Olsen | March 24, 2011 4:43 PM    Report this comment

Reminds me a bit about the old one about the first commercial flight of the worlds first pilotless passenger aircraft.
Welcome aboard ladies and gentlemen. This is the first passenger flight ever with no pilot on board. The main computer will fly and land this aircraft. Please do not be concerned as nothing can go wrong...go wrong...go wrong....go wrong.

Posted by: Richard Woodhouse | March 24, 2011 6:12 PM    Report this comment

Anybody here tried touch screen technology while in turbulence? Buttons are hard enough where you can use the physical box to steady your hand; I can't imagine this being better.

Posted by: Patrick Donovan | March 24, 2011 10:02 PM    Report this comment

Update to my previous post. I saw the references to turbulence in the videos and the inflight demo, but I'm not convinced as the turbulence encountered appeared to be very light. Time will tell....

Posted by: Patrick Donovan | March 24, 2011 10:15 PM    Report this comment

Hmmm. First the Blue Button. Then the ESP autopilot. Now voice command on the new GTN boxes. Did Garmin say that the box recognizes voice commands from the pilot, or that the pilot will recognize voice commands from the box? Can the box talk back? If so, when they hook that baby up to the ESP autopilot, it will not only prevent the pilot from doing something stupid (flight envelope wise), but also tell the pilot he is doing something stupid. Actually, this is a first step toward total automation. Since the pilot is by far the biggest cause of accidents, remove the pilot from the equation and voila, lower accident rates.

Posted by: DAVID HEBERLING | March 24, 2011 11:15 PM    Report this comment

I tried it briefly in turbulence, using the molded in finger ramps. Too short a trial to really judge it fairly. The principle seems to work. Field experience will show how effective it is.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 25, 2011 5:32 AM    Report this comment

If you fly in the part of the world where ATC routinely hands out airway re-routes, the GTN series has to be an improvement over the 430/530. Will the pilot be able to read the re-route to Dave and voila it is done?

Posted by: JAMES GRANT | March 25, 2011 8:04 AM    Report this comment

Creeping featurism. I'm a technical professional but I am continually amazed by how much money people spend for these avionics. Increased density means room for more software and it just expands because it can. My $0.02.

Posted by: BRADLEY SPATZ | March 25, 2011 11:08 AM    Report this comment

There's one aspect of these "wonder boxes" that no one seems to have commented on, so I'll take a shot...

Does it bother anyone that whenever you've decided to twiddle with the intercom, change transponder codes or make coffee with this device, the basic nav information disappears? Obviously if you are conscientious about it, you would ony take the screen away for these functions for a few seconds, but...um, I have to look at the chart again for that airport...oh, what was the FBO name again... The "glance at the panel" isn't giving you the data that it normally would; it seems like a potential pitfall. How's this for an analogy: suppose they figured out a way to have the CDI display lots of selectable functions, terrain, nearest fuel, winds aloft... One would lose the constant communication of the vital track info - isn't it DESIRABLE to, in some cases, have a screen/instrument that looks back at you and always gives you the information that fills a predictable part of your instrument scan? Doesn't that constancy give stability and reliability to the scan? Developing a box that "does too much" may come at a price...

(...yeah, I know, $17 K...)

Posted by: ANTHONY NASR | March 25, 2011 5:52 PM    Report this comment

I hope the voice command function works better than it does on my iphone!

Posted by: Josh Johnson | March 25, 2011 6:52 PM    Report this comment

Jerry, do you have "English Pirate" selected as your language of choice on Facebook?

Posted by: Peter Buckley | March 25, 2011 10:06 PM    Report this comment

This is just one more step toward the inevitable avionics system that will fly the plane for us, from takeoff to landing. If you consider the current state of the art in UAVs and fully autonomous systems for them that can already autoland the airplane, refuel in-flight with no human assistance, and even complete 'see and avoid' maneuvers for airborne traffic. Imagine an airplane that will not let you run out of gas because it makes a decision to land at the nearest airport when the fuel state is low. Where avionics and aircraft systems are going will make today’s aircraft standard look like the equivalent of the way we look at four-course A-N navigation. Future pilots will wonder how we ever survived all the button pushing and knob twirling that was needed to fly an airplane.

Posted by: John Salak | March 28, 2011 9:54 AM    Report this comment

I have a circa 2005 MX20/CNX80 MFD/WAAS GPS combination. Somehow, I doubt my capabilities would be more, or my workload less, with the latest Garmin cash cow candidate installed.

Posted by: Greg Goodknight | March 28, 2011 10:13 AM    Report this comment

Just as long as they give us a switch to turn that feature off without needing to pull a circuit breaker.

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | March 28, 2011 2:43 PM    Report this comment

As a commercial glider pilot, I am not worried about experiencing this in my cockpit but I do enjoy the humor and absurdity of the conversation here. If my passengers don't enjoy my comments I shut up!

Posted by: Haven Rich | March 29, 2011 7:17 AM    Report this comment

Just a question. Will the VR recognize your voice when in turbulence, been bounced around, with your very stressed voice? How does one train the box to still recognize these differences?

Posted by: Bruce Savage | March 29, 2011 1:38 PM    Report this comment

Voice recognition software has improved dramatically in the past decade. While it's hard for most of us to imagine this to be a major asset to the cockpit, anything like this- properly implemented- will undoubtedly reduce multi-tasking and afford the pilot more time to focus on situational awareness. And how can that be a bad thing?

Posted by: Joe Flaugher | March 30, 2011 7:42 AM    Report this comment

"Stop, Dave, my mind is going!"

Posted by: Stephen Cote | April 4, 2011 11:55 AM    Report this comment

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