Light-plane avionics star at AEA Convention

 - October 4, 2007, 5:00 AM

With all the recent talk about glass cockpits migrating to light airplanes, it has been an exciting 12 months not only for GA pilots and aviation enthusiasts, but also for avionics installers. The Aircraft Electronics Association’s annual convention was awash in news and unconfirmed talk of new products from the major avionics manufacturers, with much of the attention focused on Garmin and Avidyne, makers of low-end glass cockpits. But is the current trend in piston aircraft toward integrated systems and liquid-crystal displays really the start of a revolution, or are we getting ahead of ourselves? The answer depends on who you ask.

Based on informal conversations at the AEA Convention, held March 29 to April 1 in Las Vegas, avionics shop managers, technicians and dealers are anticipating that a flood of light piston airplanes could soon be rolling into their facilities for upgrades to the latest glass cockpits from an array of manufacturers. Many see dollar signs in a market shift that would have the owners of 1970s-era Cessna 182s, Piper Cherokees and other similar models pulling out their checkbooks to replace their current steam-gauge avionics with color flight displays, integrated navcoms, GPS receivers, moving maps, traffic-avoidance systems, datalink weather and a host of other advanced systems, all designed to make flying simpler and safer.

The avionics manufacturers that would compete in this burgeoning market, however, say they have not yet found a way to bring prices down to levels that would make economic sense for the typical owners of light piston singles, meaning that we might be at least a few years from seeing the downward migration reach the masses of light GA owners.

Garmin’s Tim Casey, speaking to convention attendees at the well attended new product introduction session, was emphatic that the G1000 integrated cockpit selected to fly in a number of new piston airplanes and Cessna’s Citation Mustang very light jet was never intended for the retrofit market. For now, he said, Garmin plans to focus on the OEM market in an effort to get the G1000 cockpit into as many production models as possible.

A big part of this effort involves testing and certifying key components of the cockpit, such as the air-data computers, airborne weather radar and a new autopilot that Garmin is developing. Once this undertaking starts to wind down, Garmin might then turn its attention to the retrofit market–but it is difficult to predict how such development will evolve and precisely when it will get started in earnest. Garmin might bring its new radar, autopilot and other stand-alone components to the retrofit market first, according to a spokesman, meaning that it could take even longer before a retrofit version of the G1000 system emerges.

Market Clues

There are additional signs that would seem to indicate that the appearance of glass cockpit technology in the piston retrofit market could be slow to materialize. Honeywell has dropped earlier plans for an integrated avionics system to fly in light piston airplanes, choosing instead to go after the turboprop and light jet markets. Gone are the Apex 1000, 2000 and 9000 designations used by Honeywell when the system was announced, with Apex/R (for retrofit) surfacing instead. This does not mean design engineering of the system has been put on the back burner, just that Honeywell’s focus has shifted up-market. Dan Barks, Honeywell director of marketing for business, regional and general aviation avionics, said that although news about the Apex project has been relatively sparse in the last year, the company nevertheless has been busy developing and refining the concept. Barks said Honeywell expects to begin flight testing a complete Apex system in a company Citation V this summer and should have some significant announcements in time for the NBAA Convention this fall, most likely involving OEM wins and a listing of aircraft eligible for Apex/R.

Honeywell wowed showgoers with the Apex glass cockpit on display at its booth. Unofficially dubbed by company marketing executives and engineers as the son of Primus Epic (referring to Honeywell’s top-of-the-line cockpit for business jets, regional airliners and helicopters), the version of Apex on display at the AEA Convention appeared far closer to what one would expect to see in a business jet than a piston single or twin. The display’s crisp graphics and uncluttered formatting of data were reminiscent of top-shelf glass in the latest business jets and, at least from outward appearance, were more impressive than Garmin’s G1000 or Avidyne’s Entegra.

But that slicker presentation of Apex not surprisingly also comes with a higher price tag. A Honeywell spokesman said a three-display version of Apex/R will sell for about $300,000 installed. That compares with about $60,000 for a two-display version of Avidyne’s Entegra cockpit in new piston models produced by Lancair, Cirrus and others. But again, the extra money gets buyers what appears to be a more sophisticated cockpit that should be right at home in the front offices of Citations, Learjets and Falcons.

Officials for Avidyne, meanwhile, were careful not to tip their hand about what the company is planning next, but a spokesman said the retrofit market is most likely in its near-term future plans. Avidyne and Garmin are locked in a heated battle for market share among piston OEMs, but Avidyne benefits from the year head start that its Entegra system has over Garmin’s G1000. This might also allow Avidyne to jump out to an early lead in the retrofit market if the company seeks to be the first to offer glass avionics to current owners of piston singles and twins.

Some saw a clue that this might indeed be the case when in March an FAA application for HIRF (high-intensity radiated fields) testing of the Entegra cockpit in a wide variety of piston models appeared in the Federal Register. An Avidyne spokesman said this was more a “paperwork issue” requested by FAA officials than a solid indication that Avidyne has decided to jump into the retrofit market with both feet, but if nothing else it proves the retrofit market is at least on Avidyne founder Dan Schwinn’s mind.

New for Business Aircraft

Sticking to its time-tested practice of focusing on the business aircraft market, Rockwell Collins at the convention hyped its IDS-3000, an integrated display retrofit package that includes active-matrix LCDs, sensors and software but not the high price of a complete Pro Line 21 Continuum cockpit upgrade. Continuum is a circa $2 million retrofit that gives buyers essentially a new avionics suite and autopilot. For operators who want to upgrade only to modern glass displays, IDS-3000 will be a better choice. A version of the cockpit with three flat-panel displays, WXR848 weather radar, cursor controls and integrated flight information server (IFIS) will cost about $650,000 before installation. The IFIS will allow pilots to pull up charts and approach plates on the system’s multi-function display.

The launch application for IDS-3000 is in the Citation 500 series through an agreement with Garrett Aviation. Additional certifications of IDS-3000 will occur later this year in the Hawker 800, Falcon 50 and Falcon 20, with Astras and the Learjet 55 possibly to follow. Benefits of IDS-3000 are lower cost of ownership, fast installation and the ability to upgrade to new capabilities, such as the electronic charts, weather and enhanced moving maps, by installing the IFIS cockpit file server.

Chelton Flight Systems, maker of the $75,000 FlightLogic EFIS with synthetic-vision flight display and highway-in-the-sky (HITS) guidance cues, announced the availability of version 5.0A software for the system, an upgrade that includes more than 130 changes. Of these, about 35 will be noticeable to pilots familiar with the previous FlightLogic system. Some of the features include enhanced Vnav functions, flight planning using victor airways and jet routes and color airspace boundaries on the moving-map display that show restricted or prohibited airspace as red, MOAs and warning areas as yellow, Class B airspace as blue and Class C and D as green.

A quick rundown of the more noteworthy FlightLogic software changes includes the following: for pilots using King KX 155A, KX 165A or Garmin/UPSAT SL-30 navcoms, the EFIS can now be used to auto tune all com, ILS and VOR frequencies; the number of user waypoints has been increased to 500, allowing for the development of grids for search-and-rescue or special-mission operations; range for the moving map has been doubled to 400 nm; a Mach meter has been added; and there is now a fast/slow indicator when the system is connected to a compatible angle-of-attack computer. Chelton has also added an altitude-capture predictor to indicate where the target altitude will be reached; an enhanced display of obstructions; expanded fuel-flow display options; and trans- parency to TAWS cautions and warning colors on the moving map that make terrain contours visible during avoidance maneuvers.

Universal Avionics, meanwhile, continues development of its own synthetic-vision EFIS, but there was no word from spokespeople at the show about when the product would be available. Mid-Canada Mod Center recently obtained an STC for a complete cockpit upgrade of a Challenger 601-1A with gear from Universal, but this package so far does not incorporate synthetic-vision guidance on the PFDs.

The Ontario avionics shop installed four Universal EFI-640 flat-panel flight displays, an MFD-640 multifunction display and terrain awareness and warning system, along with a UNS-1F FMS and handheld Universal Cockpit Display (UCD). The UCD in this Challenger is integrated with the FMS and includes a navigation chart database and airport diagrams, on which a moving aircraft position indicator appears.

Not Your Average Handheld

In other news at the show, Garmin introduced a handheld GPS receiver that is capable of displaying color topographic mapping and terrain advisory alerts. The new GPSmap 296 has a 256-color, high-resolution (480 by 320 pixels) TFT transflective display designed for viewing in most cockpit lighting conditions. The unit is a merger of Garmin’s monochrome GPSmap 196 and the color display of the GPSmap 295, with the added benefit of terrain cautions and alerts, topographic data, a built-in obstacle database of the U.S., along with a transparent navigation arc view for course, speed and distance information. The unit also features USB data transfer, a faster computer processor and a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack. List price is $1,795.

In its terrain mode, the GPSmap 296 combines inputs from built-in terrain, obstacle and flight databases to depict hazards that require attention. The user can tailor the device to suit individual needs, including a configurable look-ahead terrain and obstacle alerting function. The configurable buffer zones can be set as desired to show potential hazards in yellow (ground proximity of 500 to 1,000 feet) and red (ground proximity of 100 feet or less). The device does not meet FAA requirements for terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS), nor does it include aural warnings, but terrain-proximity cautions and alerts pop up as thumbnail images in the lower left-hand corner of any page.

The unit’s topographic data is depicted as shaded contours in sectional-chart detail, which is overlaid with a Jeppesen database showing navaids, special-use airspace and obstructions. The GPS is augmented by WAAS for lateral and vertical guidance and can store 50 reversible routes of 300 waypoints each and 15 saved tracks of 700 points each. The unit is designed to move seamlessly between any aircraft.

A Garmin spokesman also said that the panel-mount CNX80 GPS/ navcom that the company acquired when it purchased the assets of UPSAT will be renamed the GNS 480 to fit between the current GNS 430 and 530 models. Plans are in place to allow buyers of the 530 to upgrade the units with Garmin class-B TAWS. At some point, customers will also be able to upgrade the GNS 430 and 530 with WAAS IFR GPS receivers by sending the units back to Garmin for a software and processor upgrade. Target price for the WAAS upgrade is about $1,500.

ACSS, a joint company owned by L-3 Communications and Thales, announced additions to its line of safety avionics products, including the Protector+, a common computing platform designed to host a range of surveillance functions using a common processor. Protector+ allows operators to mix and match safety functions such as TCAS, TAWS, mode-S transponder and GPS in a 4- or 6-MCU LRU. It is designed as a “plug and play” upgrade for the TCAS 2000 and the T2CAS, a combined TCAS and TAWS unit.

Customers can configure the Protector+ to meet specific safety avionics requirements by choosing from new functions, including TAWS+ and TAWS+performance; TCAS+; Xpdr+; and Dlink+. Available as part of the Protector+ package, T2CAS or as a stand-alone 2-MCU unit, TAWS+ bases its alerts on a standard climb gradient, while TAWS+performance bases alerts and terrain display callouts on the unique performance characteristics of the aircraft. Enhancements in hardware and software design enable the TCAS software to identify and avoid up to twice the current number of aircraft within a 100-nm radius. Dassault has selected TCAS+ for the new Falcon 7X.

Meanwhile, Xpdr+ can be selected as a function within the Protector+ or as a stand-alone 4-MCU LRU. It is ACSS’s third-generation mode-S diversity transponder with advanced features such as elementary and enhanced surveillance and ADS-B. In addition to these new products, ACSS also announced Dlink+, a flight-deck data communication system that provides access to Acars and other services. Dlink+ integrates a communications-management unit, VDL Mode 2 digital radio and control display unit. Dlink+ has been selected by Air Wisconsin for its fleet of Bombardier CRJs and British Aerospace BAe 146s.

Attitude Indicator Gets Battery Backup
Mid-Continent Instruments, meanwhile, has been marketing its 4300-series electric attitude indicator since the middle of last year, but the unit was among the big draws on the show floor at the convention inside the Paris Hotel and Casino. What makes the instrument notable is its lead-acid cell array battery backup, which provides up to 60 minutes of operating time in the event of an aircraft electrical failure. The 4300 is designed for either primary or standby attitude indication and can be connected to 14- or 28-volt systems. In the standby role, it provides double redundancy with its available battery power.

If electrical power is interrupted to the instrument, an amber annunciator light blinks to prompt the pilot to switch to battery power within 60 seconds. The system was purposely designed this way so the battery pack would not discharge if the aircraft master switch were inadvertently left on after landing. Internal emergency lighting is also available as an option. The battery automatically recharges from the aircraft electrical system.

The backup battery pack is designed to be replaced at three-year intervals or on condition (there is a battery-test function incorporated into the unit). Mean time between failure for the gyro itself is 7,500 hours and it’s certified to TSO-C4c. It installs with a single plug. Suggested retail price of the 4300 series with the battery pack is $4,450.

Finally, Honeywell introduced a new data loader for the FMZ-2000 flight management system that uses a USB connection instead of disks. The DL-950 data loader will let users download the latest navigation database from the Internet to a laptop and then load it directly to the FMS. Updates take about five minutes, said Honeywell.

Traditional data loaders normally involve feeding six to eight diskettes into the airplane’s data loader, an arduous process that can take as long as 45 minutes. The DL-950 replaces the DL-800 and DL-900 disk-based data loaders. It fits into the existing mounting hardware and can be installed by changing aircraft wiring.

Cabin Technology Takes Off

Not surprisingly, hot news about the latest electronic equipment for the cabin featured just as prominently at the AEA Convention as cockpit avionics. From high-speed-data satcom systems and satellite TV offerings to cabin video displays and DVD players, announcements relating to in-flight entertainment shared the stage equally with cockpit avionics. At the top of most people’s lists of cool new cabin equipment are the hardware options for high-speed Internet connectivity aloft. At the show, a fifth hardware supplier entered the market for Inmarsat Swift64 data services with Chelton’s introduction of two new Swift64 data satcom systems, along with side- and tail-mount high-gain antennas.

The new Chelton HSD-7000 uses phased array, fuselage-mounted antennas (HGA-7000) and the HSD-6000 includes the new compact HGA-6000 mechanically steered, tail-mounted antenna, the company announced. The systems share common satcom system components including the SDU-7300 dual-channel Swift64 satellite data unit and HPA-7400 high-power amplifier. Both can operate independently of aircraft reference systems with the inclusion of the SRU-7200 satcom reference unit.

The SDU-7300, which was jointly developed by Chelton and Nera SatCom of Oslo, Norway, provides two Swift64 channels that can be individually configured or bonded to provide a 128-kbps data channel. Chelton said the system is also upgradeable to the next-generation Inmarsat Aero BGAN, which will offer data rates up to 432 kbps. Pricing information for the new line of Chelton HSD equipment has yet to be released.

With the economy getting back on track, the market for Swift64 hardware appears to be heating up. Honeywell will soon begin shipping its latest Swift64 data satcom, the HS-702, which supports voice, fax and up to 128-kbps data connections. When used in conjunction with the seven-channel MCS-7000 satcom system, the HS-700/702 will provide access to nine channels, allowing passengers to surf the Web and talk on the telephone simultaneously.

Rockwell Collins recently introduced the SAT-6100, a data satcom system that can provide multiple voice and data communication channels for the flight deck and cabin in a small and lightweight package, the company said. Consisting of the Collins SRT-2100 receiver and two HST-2100 high-speed transceivers, the SAT-6100 system is designed to be installed completely outside the pressure vessel, thereby preserving cabin space.

In other news from Rockwell Collins, the company’s Airshow 4000 moving-map system for the cabin recently received certification, clearing the way for the first installations in customer airplanes. The initial certification was completed in a Gulfstream IV. Airshow 4000 is capable of supporting various multimedia applications, video, audio, text and graphics, which are displayed on the aircraft’s cabin monitors.

Real-time flight information from the aircraft’s long-range navigation and air data systems is processed by the system and the appropriate maps and flight information, as well as news, stock information, sports and weather, are displayed during flight. The unit is customizable, said Collins, and applications can be tailored to meet the needs of customers, including the inclusion of customer-specific map information.
Airshow 4000 was introduced at the 2003 NBAA trade show in Orlando, Fla. It will begin shipping this month.

A Swift64 Antenna for Midsize Jets
EMS Technologies and its marketing partner, Teledyne Controls, meanwhile, have introduced the HSD-128 high-speed data terminal, which can be installed alongside an existing multi-channel voice satcom or it can operate as the aircraft’s sole satcom by using its “Aero mini-M” circuits for voice calls. The unit is capable of providing uncompressed data rates of as high as 128 kbps. EMS technologies also recently introduced the HSD-X, an expander module that adds another channel to the two-channel HSD-128 system. Two expander modules can be added to the HSD-128, the company said, for a maximum of four 64-kbps channels reaching 256 kbps of total Internet throughput. Since production of the $130,000 HSD-128 began in 2001, EMS Technologies has sold more than 200 systems, most of them serving aboard large-cabin business jets.

The big news from EMS Technologies during the show was the introduction of the AMT-3800 ($100,000 list price) fuselage-mounted, phased-array antenna, developed to provide Swift64 service in midsize and super-midsize business jets. The AMT-50 dish antenna is too big to fit on the tails of anything but the largest business jets, and operators have been asking for a low-profile phased array, said an EMS Technologies spokesman. The AMT-3800 measures 1.8 inches high, 12 inches wide and 36 inches long and is compatible with all of the company’s Swift64-based hardware, he added.

EMS Technologies also introduced a 406-MHz ELT at the convention. Priced at $998, the EMS 406-1 ELT transmits on both 406- and 121.5 MHz and includes a six-year battery pack. The unit weighs 2.1 pounds and has an optional GPS-receiver interface. Included with the ELT are a remote switch, whip antenna and a buzzer to alert pilots of accidental activation.

Thrane & Thrane introduced to dealers its first data satcom, the Aero-HSD+, which integrates global voice, fax and cockpit communications and includes two high-speed Inmarsat Swift64 data channels linked together to provide a 128-kbps data rate. Company officials said Aero-HSD+ is smaller, lighter and more compact than its competitors’ data systems. It combines the Aero-H+ and Swift64 Inmarsat services, and is available in two versions. The four-channel configuration provides a single Swift64 channel, and the five-channel box features two Swift64 channels to achieve a 128-kbps data rate. The system is slated to be available to customers at the end of this year. List prices (excluding high-gain antennas and installation) are $175,000 for the four-channel configuration and $232,000 for the five-channel version.

Chelton Buys Pentar

Northern Airborne Technology, a Chelton-owned company, announced at the show that its Seattle division has acquired the assets of Pentar, maker of the JetLAN network file server and other aviation products. A spokesman for NAT said the Pentar product line and employees will be merged with the larger enterprise and will also lend assistance where appropriate to other Chelton companies. In the past five years or so, Chelton has gone on a buying spree targeted at snatching up many well known names in aviation. Today, the Chelton Group lists about 50 companies as subsidiaries, most of them involved in aviation.

With satellite radio growing in popularity, dealers are expressing interest in the PXE-7300 satellite radio receiver from PS Engineering. Priced at $1,495, the unit allows buyers to receive more than 100 channels of audio content from Sirius Satellite Radio. The receiver includes a patch antenna and remote receiver module, according to the company. Sirius subscriptions are about $12 a month. PS Engineering also introduced the $1,995 PMA 8000 audio panel, designed to fit in the panel above a stack of Garmin GNS boxes. The unit includes selector panel for two VHF coms, cellular telephone interface, IntelliVox 6-place stereo intercom, dual independent music inputs and internal marker beacon receiver with three-light indicator.

Despite the fact that AirCell is having trouble expanding its airborne cellular network beyond the stations it currently operates (due mainly to competitors trying to keep the company out of their territory), interest in the service remains high.

AirCell showed its full line of airborne communication equipment at the show, and offered details of the new ST 3120 system, a two-channel Iridium satcom that interfaces with existing MagnaStar handsets. Using the unit’s dual transceivers, the ST 3120 provides voice and low-speed-data service to any location on or above the earth by accessing the Iridium network of 66 low-earth orbiting (LEO) satellites. The unit interfaces with the C-750 and C-2000 MagnaStar telecommunication units and cabin equipment, according to a spokesman.

Cabin Displays for Less

Founded on the premise that cabin-entertainment equipment does not have to cost nearly as much as what the big-name suppliers are charging, Flight Display Systems of Cumming, Ga., was at AEA to show dealers the company’s line of LCD monitors, DVD/MP3 players, moving-map displays, video amplifiers and other products. The company, formerly known as Sirius Technologies, currently offers more than two-dozen products, with LCD cabin monitors from seven to 30 inches, several cabin mounts and, most recently, the $655 FD932 DVD/CD player.

Securaplane, a company best known for its line of aircraft security systems, made news by introducing an emergency battery, not surprising considering the company’s president, Richard Lusko, is a long-time battery designer by trade. Securaplane’s new sealed lead-acid XL244 series emergency battery system has been designed as a direct replacement for the JET Electronics emergency battery series P5-823 and PS-835, said Lusko. Featuring battery-level test and built-in precision charging system, the XL244 series provide longer life and better reliability than Ni-Cads in emergency backup power applications, he added. Options for the XL244 series include a 115-volt AC, 400-Hz, three-phase inverter or a 115-volt AC, 400-Hz, single-phase inverter.