Choosing the right handheld EFB

Aviation International News » February 2003
January 14, 2008, 10:45 AM

In the last couple of years the concept of portable cockpit computers has caught on in a big way. Not only can such devices be used to cut pilot workload, they also have been shown to help corporate flight departments and airlines shave costs and reduce aircraft weight by replacing reams of paper approach chart binders with slim handheld PCs. Yet with so many devices to choose from, it’s not always easy to decide which one is the best for your cockpit.

At least 12 airlines recently have submitted requests for proposals to companies that market such hardware. Southwest Airlines, JetBlue, FedEx, Finnair and Lufthansa have already made the switch from paper charts and checklists to the so-called electronic flight bags (EFB)– defined by the FAA as lightweight yet rugged computing devices that may be used to perform a wide variety of flight-related duties from calculating weight-and-balance figures to viewing detailed moving maps, approach charts and airport diagrams, and even downloading current weather maps.

On the corporate side, scores of operators have been tossing away their Jeppesen binders with gusto in favor of a variety of lightweight pen-tablet computers, which are about the size and weight of a hardcover novel, yet have enticingly vivid touch displays and are easy to use and relatively inexpensive to buy.

Not surprisingly, several suppliers have emerged on the scene, hoping to cash in on the EFB craze. At least 11 companies are now vying for a piece of a wide-open market that spans the gamut from the world’s biggest airlines and fractional-ownership providers down to weekend aviators flying light piston singles. With so many products to choose from, pilots have started to ask around about pricing and features in the hope of finding the right machine for the job, without paying too much.

EFBs typically range in price from about $3,000 to $7,000 for a commercial off-the-shelf device, up to $36,000 for the UCD product from Universal Avionics. While it’s on the pricey side, the UCD is a serious piece of hardware. It can interface directly with the FMS and other aircraft systems, making it a true extension of the panel avionics. Most of the lower-priced EFB computers, on the other hand, are little more than palm-held PCs, but several can be connected to external GPS receivers and loaded with a variety of software for completing checklists, performing weight-and-balance calculations and (in the case of at least one manufacturer’s device) even listening to digital music loaded on the hard drive or snapping digital pictures using the unit’s built-in camera.

When considering which EFB to buy, it is important to consider not just price but also screen size, weight and processor speed and whether peripherals such as CD-ROM drives and color printers are included in the purchase price or must be bought separately. A number of EFBs are based on the same hardware (Fujitsu’s P600 handheld computer is popular now), but prices can vary by several hundred dollars for the same computer depending on what extra equipment and software are included.

Most EFBs run Jeppesen’s FlightDeck charting software, with CD-ROM subscriptions available through the EFB supplier or directly from Jeppesen. Lots of extras are usually available, from external power adapters and carrying cases to wireless keyboards and network adapters.

The FAA recently issued guidance on how EFBs can be certified for use in commercial operations, and several of the companies that sell hardware and software will also offer assistance in gaining the needed approvals. (The FAA at press time was due to release revised guidelines for EFB certification, so be sure to check with the supplier to determine which certification class applies to a particular device.) There are no certification requirements for Part 91 operators, although a number of large corporate flight departments reportedly have elected to submit their programs to FAA scrutiny.

For anyone considering an EFB, the place to start your research should be the DOT’s Volpe transportation research center, where technologists have been keeping track of EFB developments and human-factors research. A compendium of topics, including white papers, reports and links to additional resources, may be perused online at www.volpe.dot.gov/opsad/efb.

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