The problems of touchscreens in the Joint Strike Fighter

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the most crammed-with-digital-tech fighter jet in history, the product of a multi-decade, trillion-dollar design process that has been famously messy.

But the jet is out there, and pilots are flying it. One big design shift with the F-35 is that it removes many of the small physical switches that crowded older jet cockpits, and replaces them with a big touchscreen. (That's a picture of it, above, which also shows the in-helmet visualization.)

The folks at the Husk-Kit aviation magazine got an (anonymous) pilot of the F-35 to give their candid assessment of the plane, and it turns out the touchscreen causes some serious problems — for this pilot, anyway, an astounding error rate of 20% while trying to activate a feature:

 The rest of the cockpit is beautiful to look at – nothing analogue, all digital with about 10 actual switches in the cockpit. Notice I say beautiful to look at, not necessarily beautiful to interact with! In theory the all-glass display is great. It's touchscreen, you can set it up to show pretty much anything you want in any layout you want. Take, for example, a fuel display. You can have it in a large window that shows you everything you could possibly want to know about the aircraft's fuel system; the contents of each tank, which pumps are operating, fuel temperature, centre of gravity etc. Or you can shrink it into a smaller window that only shows more basic info. Or you don't even display it at all because the Function Access Buttons (FAB) along the top of the display always has a small fuel section with the essential info visible at all times. That's the beauty of the display – size and customisation. The drawback is in the complete lack of tactile response. It can be challenging to press the correct 'button' on the display whenever the jet is in motion as it is quite a bumpy ride at times. At present I am pressing the wrong part of the screen about 20% of the time in flight due to either mis-identification, or more commonly by my finger getting jostled around in turbulence or under G. One of the biggest drawbacks is that you can't brace your hand against anything whilst typing – think how much easier it is to type on a smartphone with your thumbs versus trying to stab at a virtual keyboard on a large tablet with just your index finger.

For decades now, I've heard about the problems that emerge when you replace physical chunky buttons with touchscreens, or membrane-switches. The touchscreens are far more flexible, and membrane switches are cheaper, but they're finickity.

This causes all manner of problems when it comes to crisis situations. Way back in the early 00s, I spoke to some NYC firefighters who hated the interface on a new model of walkie-talkie radio they'd been issued. The old one had a very small number of buttons — three or four, as I recall — that were big and easy-to-locate with your finger, even while wearing thick gloves with zero visibility (a situation a firefighter might easily encounter). The new radios had smaller, fiddlier electronic switches — I can't remember the precise design details (this was almost 20 years ago), but I think they were a much larger range of membrane-like switches. Anyway, the firefighters loathed the new upgrade. The radios had many more kewl features, but these were of no use if you couldn't readily activate them with hands encased in thick gloves, while running around in a crisis.

The ergonomic morass of our touchscreenified world is pretty much everywhere, if you look at it. I'm writing this blog post on a 2017 Macbook Pro, which — in Apple's quest to go as slim as possible — famously included a "butterfly" un-keyboard, upon which the owner un-types. It's not a touchscreen, but Apple strains towards that flatland dimension; there's so little transit on the keys that my typing speed, historically up around 80 WPM, plunges to around 50 WPM. And Apple replaced the top row of keys with a touchscreen "touchbar", which pleased almost no-one.

I'll be interested to see how march of the touchscreen goes, over the next few years. Apple is scrapping the touchbar this year, reportedly. The pilots are stuck with that F-35 touchscreen for as long as those warbirds are in the air, though.