Aspen to debut new cockpit product line at AirVenture

 - July 5, 2007, 4:58 AM

Aspen Avionics, the small Albuquerque, N.M. start-up firm that made headlines earlier this year after staving off a patent lawsuit filed by Eclipse Aviation, is preparing to break into the big time with a new line of cockpit products scheduled to make their debut later this month at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis.

The company isn’t tipping its hand just yet about what it plans to unveil,
but the venue for the product launch and comments by company executives last month make it clear that Aspen has its sights set on the lucrative lightplane aftermarket.

In fact, this is the moment company founders Peter Lyons and Jeff Bethel have been waiting for since deciding to leave their jobs at cross-town employer Eclipse in 2005 to form Aspen Avionics. A little over a year ago the pair managed to secure the necessary seed money from the venture-capitalist world based on their proposal for a unique avionics product line, essentially the same one the world will see for the first time at Oshkosh, according to insiders.

Eclipse and Aspen in February settled a patent dispute over the AT300 hazard awareness display, so far Aspen’s only product. Under the settlement agreement, Eclipse dropped a competing patent claim in exchange for 1 percent ownership of Aspen. The very light jet maker had contended in the suit that Lyons and Bethel developed the AT300 product while they worked at Eclipse and, therefore, it had a claim to ownership of the patent. The AT300 combines a three-inch vertical speed indicator with an integrated digital moving map capable of receiving inputs from a terrain awareness and warning system.

It is designed to replace an electromechanical VSI to save space in cramped instrument panels.

Aspen wasted little time after the settlement announcement in naming John Uczekaj, former president and COO of Nordam and a past executive vice president of aerospace electronics systems for Honeywell, its new president. Lyons and Bethel remain with the company and are leading the effort to launch the upcoming product line and shepherd the individual components through the certification pipeline. Now with a stable of 31 employees, Aspen is involved in its second round of equity financing, which will allow it to move ahead with plans to hire another 20 or so employees between now and next year’s third quarter.

Uczekaj said he originally planned to take some time off after leaving Nordam, a $500 million maker of nacelles, thrust reversers and other aerospace components based in Tulsa, Okla., but when Aspen Avionics started making overtures last year he decided to jump at the opportunity. “I wanted to be back in avionics in some capacity because I really enjoyed it,” he said, “and after several months of discussion and taking a look at what this market could be I decided to take the job.”

At Honeywell, Uczekaj was responsible for the Primus Epic engineering and certification program. He won’t be tasked with anything quite so complicated at Aspen, at least not initially, but he hinted that the company might one day grow into a supplier of avionics for a broad cross section of the industry, from light sport aircraft (LSA) to business jets.

“We see ourselves eventually expanding into additional functionality,” he said, “perhaps for ADS-B [automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast], the LSA market if those airplanes turn into the next generation of trainers and backup instruments for business aircraft.”

For their parts, Lyons and Bethel both have strong hands-on engineering backgrounds. Lyons worked as autopilot and integrated avionics processor product line manager for Rockwell Collins, and Bethel helped lead the development of the UPS Aviation Technologies (now a division of Garmin) MX20 multifunction display. The pair hatched the idea to form Aspen Avionics while working for Eclipse, where Bethel was involved in the flight-test program of the Eclipse 500 and Lyons worked as a level-B software engineer.

Uczekaj said one of Aspen’s biggest differentiators in the market will be price. The company recently reduced the price of the AT300 display by $1,000 to $2,995, and it plans to hold the line on future products as well, he said, promising that the avionics package due for introduction at the end of the month will be noteworthy for being innovative and affordable to GA aircraft owners. Stay tuned.