For any pilot who’s ever sat glued to the Weather Channel or logged onto a weather Web site to keep a watchful eye on a powerful cold front or line of thunderstorms sweeping across the country, the term airborne datalink could soon take on special significance.
Datalink, after all, makes possible the relay of text and graphical weather information from data centers on the ground straight to the cockpit. Hardware required to take advantage of datalink weather services includes only a simple airborne data receiver, antenna and a cockpit display. When formulating a strategic view of the weather en route, not even airborne radar and Flight Service specialists can outperform those color Nexrad images sliding across an MFD, painting with electronic brushstrokes the storms that threaten to imperil passengers and crew–or at least take an aircraft miles off course to avoid a bumpy ride.
Add to this the ability to receive Metars, TAFs, updates to notams and a raft of other flight-related information, and the case for installing an airborne datalink receiver becomes easier to make.
The choices for hardware and datalink services, which in the past had been limited to just a couple of players, have mushroomed seemingly overnight. In evidence during the Aircraft Electronics Association’s annual convention, held April 24 to 27 in Palm Springs, Calif., the new era of so-called digital airspace has arrived. After all the promises and fitful starts by companies attempting to offer reliable, affordable datalink weather services, low-cost broadcast weather products swelled the halls of the Palm Springs Convention Center, and indeed appeared poised to enter general aviation’s mainstream. The following is an overview of the services and hardware highlighted at the show.
WSI Pilot Weather Advisor
Introduced at AEA was the new Pilot Weather Advisor (PWA), a satellite-based service from aviation weather stalwart WSI that automatically broadcasts graphical and text weather updates every five minutes to a cockpit display. Services offered through PWA include radar mosaics, graphical Metars and TAFs, plotted sigmets and airmets and the cleverly named Nowrad service, depicting areas of rain, snow and mixed precip, along with cell tops and movement. A company called Mobile Satellite Ventures provides the data pipe through a single low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite. Connectivity is available to operators anywhere in the continental U.S. and at any altitude, even on the ground.
Eric Schenker, business development manager for WSI of Billerica, Mass., said PWA is compatible with many panel-mounted and portable displays, adding that the company is working on certification through a partnership with avionics maker Sandia. Scheduled for availability this fall, PWA will be charged on a flat-rate subscription basis for customers flying in the continental U.S. Although monthly subscription pricing has yet to be set, Schenker said PWA would cost roughly as much as home cable TV service–in the neighborhood of $55.
WSI, a leading provider of preflight computer-based weather products for FBOs and corporate flight departments, purchased the technology to develop PWA earlier this year from a company called Vigyan. Unlike some of the other airborne weather services, which are based on a pilot-initiated request/response system–not to mention, charged on a per-download schedule–Schenker said a big advantage of PWA is that the continuous updates are included in the basic subscription plan, meaning that no matter how much an operator flies the cost for weather data is the same. A full upload of PWA weather data is accomplished in a minute or so, said Schenker.
While service providers all like to talk about “real time” weather data, the truth is the information received is always at least a few minutes old. Here’s why: first the WSI weather data center on the ground must collect and filter the data from individual reporting stations. Next, the data is verified by computer and broadcast to ground stations or satellites. Finally, the onboard data receiver initiates a link and begins the download.
Even though the entire chain of events from weather gathering to dissemination occurs quickly, the typical lag time is about five or six minutes, meaning that the pilot is seeing thunderstorm cells not where they are, but where they were five or six minutes ago. For this reason, datalinked weather should be thought of as strategic rather than tactical information. It is important to note that datalink updates are considered advisories, and therefore cannot substitute for a preflight weather briefing as far as the FAA is concerned, even if full Metars are downloaded before takeoff.
Satellink Technologies Merlin
Another in-flight weather provider that used the AEA Convention as a springboard from which to launch its service was Satellink Technologies, a Dulles, Va. weather data service provider. The company’s Merlin airborne weather system, scheduled to begin initial service this month, provides high-resolution weather graphics and notams supplied by Jeppesen.
Like PWA, service content is delivered through Merlin in a continuous stream, although Merlin uses both satellite and terrestrial links. Maps supplied through the subscription service include GOES infrared visible and composite satellite images, Nexrad two-kilometer base reflectivity, Nexrad echo tops, sigmets, icing reports, turbulence reports, wind and temperature aloft forecasts, Metars, TAFs, airmets and pireps.
The first Merlin hardware, including the system’s high-bandwidth blade antenna and internal GPS receiver, will begin shipping to customers this month. Originally a project within Orbital Sciences, Satellink Technologies was created as a spin-off company last year. Company spokespeople said that in the last several months technological advances have increased the system’s bandwidth (to 50- to 60 kbps), allowing Merlin also to deliver IFR traffic information through the ASD datastream, airport and FBO information–including fuel prices–and updated news and sports scores. The service is compatible with PDAs, cockpit portable displays and MFDs.
Price for the hardware, according to a spokesman, is $3,500 and includes the first year of service. Monthly subscriptions after the first year are $45. By the end of the year Satellink Technologies plans to introduce the Merlin service in Europe. The spokesman said dual-band receivers that operate both in the U.S. and Europe should be available by early next year.
FlightMax Datalink Weather
Avidyne arrived at AEA with news of its plans to offer a datalink weather service to buyers of its popular line of FlightMax general aviation MFDs. The new DX50 datalink transceiver is compatible with the Orbcomm LEO satellite system, through which pilots receive Nexrad imagery and graphic and text Metars. Avidyne is both the service and hardware provider for the service.
Annual subscription plans for the service, due to start this summer, are $349 and $599. However, an Avidyne spokesman at the show had a hard time spelling out the differences between the two pricing plans, saying only that that the company is waiting for customers to sign up for the service before offering specifics of just what they will get for their money.
But, the spokesman promised, for $349 a year the typical user will receive the full complement of services. The higher price, he said, could provide customers with unlimited access, while the lower price could be for a restricted number of downloads. Price for the DX50 transceiver, he said, is $2,950.
Echo Flight, a Boulder, Colo.-based provider of satellite weather data and a reseller of Orbcomm services, has been offering datalink graphical weather to users of its Flight Cheetah portable displays since December 1998. Since service inauguration the company claims more than 350,000 messages have been delivered to users, who pay a monthly subscription fee starting at $25. For that price, users receive a certain number of downloads, after which updates cost $1 each. Higher-priced service packages provide more downloads.
A unique feature of the Echo Flight service is that it allows the pilot or passengers to send e-mail and position reports en route. Because of the relatively slow data rates involved, e-mail attachments are not possible, but users can send text messages through the satellites.
Meteorlogix, formerly DTN Weather Services, serves as the weather provider for Echo Flight. Included are Nexrad images within 500 nm of aircraft position, graphical Metar presentations of ceilings, visibility and reported weather observations at nearby airports and full Metar text. The service also provides a graphical wind speed/direction interface and temperature/dewpoint spreads for nearby airports.
Garmin GNS Weather
After experiencing a delay of several months, Garmin in late April flew the STC flight for the GDL 49 datalink receiver. Tim Casey, Garmin marketing manager, said there is a three-month backlog for the $3,495 system, which begins shipping this month. The data radio interfaces with the GNS 400 and 500 series displays to provide the standard menu of Nexrad images and Metars through the Orbcomm network. Buyers receive weather by signing up for a subscription to the Echo Flight service.
The Orbcomm satellite network is already in place and operational, and has been providing all-altitude coverage across the continental U.S. for the last four years. Unlike some of the newer satellite and terrestrial datalink services now coming online, Orbcomm is a request/reply service, meaning that the user must initiate a link with the satellite to receive a weather download instead of receiving data automatically.
A major challenger to the satellite weather service providers is Bendix/King’s Wingman service, a broadcast weather network that delivers data through FAA Flight Information Service (FIS) ground stations based at airports throughout the country.
The KDR 510 datalink receiver and antenna system ($5,500 list price) allows users to access text Metars, TAFs and pireps for free, as well as Nexrad images for a fee. Weather can be displayed either on the KMD 550 or KMD 850 MFDs and is part of the Bendix/King Integrated Hazard Awareness System (IHAS).
There are three hardware components to the Honeywell Bendix/King datalink service–a ground-station network, the airborne datalink receiver and antenna and the display. The ground stations receive data from a central communications center and continuously broadcast their signals. To date, FIS stations cover most of the Eastern portion of the U.S. By 2004 Honeywell anticipates almost complete coverage of the continental U.S.
Honeywell offers three subscription packages for graphical weather downloads. The first package ($49.95 a month) provides unlimited access to regional and national Nexrad images. The second package ($69.95 a month) includes all graphical Nexrad products and two optional weather products. The third package ($89.95 a month) includes all Nexrad products and all optional products.
The options package consists of convective forecasts, icing, turbulence and winds aloft; graphical Metars; animated Nexrad images; and plain-English Metar translations. Buyers of Package Two could pick two of these additional products and subscribers to the premium package would have access to the full complement of services.
There are benefits as well as drawbacks to the FIS weather service that are worth noting. The most obvious drawback is that because FIS is a line-of-sight system, coverage over much of the country is limited to higher altitudes, generally above 5,000 ft and in some areas above 18,000 ft. Near airports on which an FIS ground station has been installed the receiver can pick up signals all the way to the ground, but away from the stations aircraft must fly higher to receive the signals.
An advantage of FIS over Orbcomm is that FIS transmits its data at a relatively brisk 31.5 kbps, meaning downloads occur more quickly. Also, FIS is an automatic, continuously broadcast service, while with the Orb-comm network pilots must manually request each weather download.
Another intriguing option for datalinked weather is a service called Anywhere Wx, which is compatible with the AirCell airborne cellular telephone system. Uploads of weather data using AirCell’s just announced Flight Guardian service take about one minute per map, according to an AirCell spokesman. Hardware required to interface with the system is an AirCell AGT.01, AT.02 or AGT.02 telephone system, the AirCell Guardian 1000 data receiver and a display–an MFD, handheld flight display or a PDA.
Service packages for Anywhere Wx through AirCell are rolled into calling plans, monthly pricing for which starts at $29.95 and rises in increments to $499.95. With the basic $29.95 service, users receive five minutes of included cellular minutes, with additional minutes charged at $1.99 each. The next pricing schedule, the bronze plan, is $59.95 per month and includes 25 min of airtime with additional minutes charged at $1.75 each. The silver plan is $99.99 and includes 60 min of airtime with additional minutes costing $1.75. The gold plan is $169.95 per month and includes 120 min of airtime, again with additional minutes charged at $1.75 each. Finally, for $499.95 a month the platinum plan provides unlimited minutes. With all the plans subscribers can use their minutes for weather download, voice communications, e-mail or any combination of the three.
Jay Humbard, president and CEO of Control Vision, the service provider for the AirCell datalink weather service, said Anywhere Wx can also be combined with other software products, such as Control Vision’s Anywhere Map–which includes aviation map software and a GPS receiver–for use with a PDA. Control Vision offers a datalink service of its own that uses the GlobalStar satellite network for downloads. Using a satellite link, each map takes only about 20 sec to receive, Humbard claimed. For $2,999, he said, buyers get a Compaq iPAQ 3850 Pocket PC, the Anywhere Wx software, Garmin 35 GPS receiver and a GST 1600 GlobalStar telephone.
Subscription plans using the GlobalStar datalink range from $30 a month (in addition to $1.49 a minute) to $120 a month with 60 min of included airtime.
Some readers may recall that last year’s AEA Convention was touted as ushering in the era of high-speed data. Cabin system specialist Airshow made the surprise announcement that it had teamed with GlobalStar and Qualcomm for an airborne Internet service that would provide 130 kbps of bi-directional data and sell for about $300,000. Since then that program has fallen by the wayside, but other endeavors have continued, and again this year high-speed data figured as a major topic of conversation among the avionics shop owners, technicians and exhibitors at AEA.
Inmarsat in April announced the commercial availability of its new Swift64 mobile data service, an airborne satellite Internet pipe with connection speeds rivaling single-channel ISDN, and slightly speedier than a home user’s telephone modem connection. At this year’s AEA Convention, hardware and service providers gave complete updates of their progress to date.
The Honeywell/Thales HS-600 and EMS Technologies ADT-128 are the first data units approved by Inmarsat for aviation use. Installations of the Honeywell/Thales hardware began last month, almost a year sooner than Honeywell originally expected. EMS Technologies, meanwhile, gained approval on the eve of the show after a two-hour test flight from Dallas to Wichita in a Challenger 604.
Hardware from Honeywell/Thales that an operator needs to set up an on-aircraft network connected to the Swift64 pipe is a satcom system, including an antenna; the HS-600 data unit with high-power amplifier; the NSU-4 network server; and a wireless or 10/100BT Ethernet hub. List price for the HS-600 with high-power amplifier, RF combiner and splitter is $218,000. Honeywell customers can sign up for Swift64 service through the company’s OneLink program.
Honeywell is offering an introductory free airtime package for OneLink Aero-H/H+ customers. Swift64 services cost between $9 and $15 per minute, depending on the aircraft’s location and how the data pipe is being used. The fee structure for Internet surfing, known as circuit mode, is different from that for sending data such as large e-mail attachments, which is called packet mode. Web browsing costs $11 to $15 per minute, while packet transfers are charged at $9 to $12 per megabyte.
Most customers who purchase the HS-600 or forthcoming HS-700 data system will likely opt for the NSU-4 network server as well. The server, a full-featured IP router running the Linux operating system, allows multiple users to connect to the system simultaneously.
EMS Technologies HSD-64/-128
EMS Technologies is offering two high-speed data terminals, the HSD-128 and HSD-64. The HSD-128 satcom data terminal, priced at $128,250, is now being installed in a handful of corporate and head-of-state airplanes, including a GIV-SP, Falcon 50 and Falcon 900EX. Raymond Larkin, director of sales and marketing for EMS Technologies of Ottawa, said the HSD-128 is a dual-channel data satcom unit designed to interface with an onboard computer server.
During the April test flight in a customer Challenger 604, he said, the first channel was used for surfing the Web and the second for placing a number of voice calls. The HSD-128 is targeted at corporate aircraft and is capable of providing 128 kbps of data throughput when both channels are applied to Internet use or sending and receiving e-mail.
The single-channel 64-kbps HSD-64 has been flying routinely on U.S. military aircraft since last November. Although he was prevented from revealing specifics, Larkin said the U.S. Department of Defense decided to install the $68,750 (list price) HSD-64 data units immediately after September 11, along with sophisticated video-conferencing equipment, to allow high-level military commanders to keep in constant touch.
Both the HSD-64 and HSD-128 are compatible with many off-the-shelf satcom systems and antennas and can interface with network file servers and wireless networking tools. Teledyne Controls is the exclusive distributor of the EMS Technologies HSD products.
Rockwell Collins HST-900
Rockwell Collins, meanwhile, demonstrated its HST-900 high-speed transmitter over the Swift64 network earlier this spring. Designed as a companion to the Collins SAT-906 satcom, the HST-900 will provide about 64 kbps of connectivity in flight when connected to the SAT-906’s high-power amplifier.
Initial availability of the HST-900 is scheduled for this fall. The system will be equipped with Ethernet, ISDN and RS-232 interfaces for cabin networking. Collins claims that once installed the HST-900 can be upgraded for new generations of high-speed datalink with “minimal impact.” Conversely, Honeywell and EMS Technologies both say the transition to higher data rates when the next generation of Inmarsat satellites are launched in 2004 will require significant hardware upgrades.
The ground/space network for Swift64 is in place and mobile packet data services will be ready when the first passengers tap into the system this summer, said an Inmarsat spokesman. The satellite communications provider anticipates a large market for its aero-data services among business aircraft operators. As of December, more than 4,000 aircraft worldwide were equipped with satcom, 1,400 of which were business airplanes.
The coverage footprint for Swift64 services is the same as that for Inmarsat voice satcom. All landmasses and most flight routes except those over the North Pole are covered. Four Inmarsat satellites blanket the earth, except the poles, with communications coverage from their geosynchronous positions 23,000 mi away. Because of the great distances that the satellite signals must travel, there is a communications lag of a couple of seconds, but for the average Internet user, Inmarsat spokespeople said, the delay will not be noticed.
While it certainly will be not on the same tier as Swift64, Pentar Avionics and AirCell have formed a partnership to provide an e-mail/data server for use in flight with the AirCell phone system. Pentar has developed a family of cabin network servers that incorporates the company’s JetLAN AirMail software. Using data compression techniques and an AirCell data modem, users can send and receive small e-mail messages through the airborne cellphone connection at speeds of 9.6 kbps.
The JetLAN server running Linux OS and including the needed software and Ethernet switches sells for a list price of $35,550. Hardware includes the installation tray, battery backup and seven LAN ports, one of which is reserved for the server. Pentar’s higher-priced JetLAN XP server for business aircraft is compatible with the Swift64 service from EMS Technologies.
With about a dozen aircraft now flying with Airshow’s new Tailwind 100 TV system, which was introduced in December, the company announced at AEA it is extending the standard product warranty from three to five years, and introducing what it claims is an industry-first “total satisfaction guarantee.” The Tailwind guarantee, said a spokesman, promises to replace a customer’s system within the warranty period if it does not perform to “published specifications.”
Feeling fairly bullish about its latest TV system, which eliminates some of the quirks of earlier systems, Airshow introduced the guarantee “to be sure anybody interested in airborne TV would consider Airshow as a safe buy,” said Gary Glynn, Airshow’s senior v-p of sales and marketing. Designed for use in the continental U.S., Airshow’s Tailwind 100 TV system is flying on Citation Xs, Gulfstream IVs, Dassault Falcon 50s and Bombardier Global Expresses.
Rosen’s line of in-flight entertainment displays surpasses itself year after year. Considering that advances in display technology help usher in a steady stream of products that are brighter, wider, thinner and lighter, it should come as no surprise that Rosen’s latest lineup is its most impressive to date.
Many of the displays Rosen ships today are based on a widescreen format, intended for viewing DVD movies. But all are scaleable, leaving the viewing choice to the user. The seven-inch Rosen SlimLine shown at AEA seems like the perfect fit for the business jet cabin–unless that cabin happens to be lodged between the pressure bulkheads of a Boeing Business Jet or Airbus Corporate Jet, in which case the largest 24-in. Rosen monitor seems the better choice.
In addition to the 7- and 24-in. displays Rosen’s current line includes a compact, 2.5-lb LCD that measures 5.6-in. diagonally, followed by 8.4-in., 10.4-in., 17-in. and 20-in. monitors.
It may say Goodrich on the front, but the new i-linc multifunction display introduced in April is really a masquerading six-inch-diagonal MX20 MFD produced by UPS Aviation Technologies. Rebranded for Goodrich, i-linc is the result of a partnership with UPSAT that allows Goodrich to market a system capable of integrating lightning, navigation, charts, collision avoidance, terrain awareness and radar. The result is an impressive package, which bundles Goodrich’s Stormscope, Skywatch and LandMark safety technologies in a single box.
“Custom program packaging and pricing will make the i-linc system attractive to a wide range of aircraft platforms and operators,” said a Goodrich spokeswoman, adding that i-linc is also configurable with Jeppesen Chart View and can serve as a radar indicator replacement.
The flat-panel display incorporates an internal computer processor that interfaces with SkyWatch and SkyWatch HP for collision avoidance, LandMark for terrain avoidance and Stormscope for weather and lightning detection. The new product should give Bendix/King, whose IHAS 5000 and 8000 boxes include essentially the same functionality, a strong run for its money. The spokeswoman said i-linc would begin shipping this month.
Avidyne FlightMax EX5000
Avidyne touts the FlightMax EX5000 MFD as the first in a series of large-format display products for buyers of Cirrus and Lancair high-performance piston singles that eventually will be available for retrofit into other aircraft. The display features a 10.4-in. diagonal high-resolution (800 by 600 pixels) active-matrix LCD that allows the pilot to overlay navigation data such as the active flight plan route; airways; navaids; off-route waypoints; political boundaries; obstacles; special-use airspace; lightning strikes using Skywatch; and a color-contoured map of the ground and water.
Avidyne said FlightMax EX5000 will be offered on the new Columbia 350 and 400 models beginning this month. The company gained TSO approval for the MFD in the Cirrus SR20 and SR22 in January.
At AEA, Avidyne discussed the new engine-monitoring features on the FlightMax EX5000, a graphical fuel totalizer, a “lean acquire” mode and a “percent horsepower” display, which a spokesman said takes the guesswork out of fuel and power management. The integrated fuel totalizer monitors fuel flow and computes nautical miles per gallon, fuel remaining, fuel-to-waypoint and fuel-to-destination. CHT, EGT, RPM, manifold pressure, oil temperature, oil pressure, fuel flow, outside air temperature and electrical bus voltages are also monitored and displayed.
A dedicated engine-monitor page shows all engine settings and parameters at a glance. In the event of an exceedence, each out-of-limit parameter is highlighted on the screen. The MFD will log up to 30 hr of recorded data.
In the Eastern sky there’s “Rock” and in the West there’s “Roll.” Together they form Rock-and-Roll, the twin geostationary satellites whose raison d’etre is to broadcast 100 digital audio channels of music, news, sports and other content to buyers of XM Satellite Radio receivers.
Owing to the fact that XM launched an aggressive multimillion-dollar advertising campaign earlier this year, chances are most pilots have heard of the service by now. What many may not know is that Carrollton, Texas-based Heads-Up Technologies, a maker of digital audio and warning devices for aviation, is about to begin flight trials of an XM-capable receiver for aircraft. Comant industries produces the antenna, which connects to a small receiver and a display that allows users to choose channels.
Included in the $10-per-month subscription fee are dozens of music channels, news from CNN, Bloomberg, Fox News and others, as well as ESPN Radio, comedy stations and the Weather Channel radio network.
Icarus Sky Connect
Representatives from Icarus Instruments were on hand at the show touting the just introduced Sky Connect satphone, a 2.4-gHz cordless handset and antenna system for use in aircraft cabins and cockpits. Like the company’s Sat Talk II phone, Sky Connect uses the Iridium network to route calls across the globe. The $19,995 phone system can operate as far as 300 ft from the cabin, where the onboard receiver is installed.
Steve Silverman, Icarus president, said the Iridium network of LEO satellites is expected to remain in operation for the next five or so years, after which the service will be shut down. Iridium LLC, the private company that purchased the satellites after the original Iridium went bankrupt, has said it is possible that the service could remain on the air for another 10 years because about a dozen spare satellites are ready to replace aging and damaged satellites.
Iridium consists of 66 satellites, not including the spares. Despite Iridium’s limited lifetime, Silverman said interest among operators in Sky Connect has been strong. He seemed to be proved right during AIN’s impromptu interview on the AEA show floor when Phil Boyer, AOPA president, walked up and announced he would buy a portable Iridium phone for some upcoming flights outside the U.S.
Blue Sky Network C-1000
Another Iridium-based phone system to make its debut recently is the BlueSkyLink C-1000 from Blue Sky Network. The $6,995 satphone kit is a single-channel system that includes the remote receiver, handset, antenna and all cables. Optional equipment includes a hands-free interface, data kit for e-mail connectivity and a dual-channel antenna.
Initial activation fee is $50, with monthly fees ranging from $40 for 10 min of service to $300 for 200 min. Additional minutes are $1.50 each.
By the end of this year’s convention, AEA organizers were already looking forward to next year’s show in Orlando, Fla., to be held April 24 to 26. Booth space for the Palm Springs show was sold out, with 114 exhibitors occupying space in the convention center. The total attendance figure of 1,320 was down from last year’s record-setting convention in Dallas, when a total of 1,466 made the trip.