IS&S relishes chance to grow as integrated avionics manufacturer

 - February 8, 2008, 4:59 AM

Innovative Solutions & Support is a growing avionics manufacturer that made a name for itself with RVSM solutions, but it is now on the verge of greatly increased brand recognition with the certification of the Avio NG avionics suite that began shipping in new Eclipse 500 very light jets late last year. Until Eclipse switched to IS&S to provide the three-display glass cockpit in the Eclipse 500 as well as other hardware and software that drives the displays, IS&S focused primarily on the retrofit and component market.

IS&S’ biggest recent product was the air-data computer used in many RVSM upgrades, and the RVSM mandate was a huge boost for the publicly traded company. “The air-data unit was a home run,” said Roman Ptakowski, IS&S president. “Sixty percent of those aircraft that needed hardware use an IS&S [air-data computer].” What IS&S offered that was so attractive was a single unit that replaced two LRUs and cost half as much as other offerings while delivering improved performance, he said.

The RVSM mandate, however, was like the Y2K deadline, a lot of work but with a clear cutoff and not a huge market after the need was filled. IS&S needed to keep
the momentum going with another program promising much greater growth. Around 2000, the company began exploring opportunities in flat-panel displays. “We saw that further integration was possible,” Ptakowski said.

Company engineers figured that rather than simply make a me-too display, IS&S could advance the technology by making the displays a gateway to present a variety of information to the pilot. IS&S named it the Cockpit Information Portal (IP), and on the portal all sorts of possibilities became available, including display of charts, terrain, an electronic flight bag and upcoming technologies such as synthetic vision. While none of this is necessarily new and different, IS&S, which is smaller than the major avionics manufacturers, believed it could develop Cockpit IP faster and at a much lower cost.

One problem with having huge displays in the cockpit and plenty of inexpensive computer processing power driving the displays is that it becomes possible to do almost anything with those displays. When it comes to FAA certification, however, designers have to be reined in because the agency is slow to approve new technology and presentations, especially something that pilots interact with in a dynamic and safety-focused environment.

At the heart of IS&S displays is the company’s patented integrity checking processor, which double-checks the information that the software delivers to the displays. “We make sure it does not present false or misleading data,” Ptakowski said. IS&S designs its products to meet the stringent standards of FAR Part 25 certification, which makes certification in Part 23 aircraft easier while opening up a larger market for retrofits.

Avio NG Avionics
IS&S’ technological expertise was put to the test when Eclipse Aviation selected the company to supply the PFD and MFD and software for the Eclipse 500’s Avio NG Total Aircraft Integration system last March. “It’s as advanced as there is,” said Ptakowski. “We’re the computer horsepower in that airplane.”

What makes the Avio NG system different and a challenge for both Eclipse and IS&S is that almost everything electric or electronic is controlled via the avionics system. And the Eclipse program, IS&S’s first display installation in a new production business jet, represents a huge step forward for the company.

The Avio NG system for Eclipse is also a technological leap for IS&S. Instead of a three-LRU system like the one used for the PC-12 and Boeing 737/757/767 retrofits, the Avio NG system has all components built into the displays themselves. For IS&S, Avio NG isn’t yet a fully integrated avionics suite built by one company, but it is a step in that direction. Avio NG’s radios are provided by Honeywell, audio panel by PS Engineering, transponders by Garmin and FMS by Chelton Flight Systems. “We have moved along on the integration path,” said Ptakowski.

IS&S isn’t betting the company on the Eclipse program, although it is a significant segment of upcoming company revenues. “It isn’t do or die for our company,” said Ptakowski. “We’re very much aware that there is a financial exposure to the company, but it is something that is factored into our plans. We believe they will be successful.” The Eclipse program has been a huge challenge, he added, “and we’ve learned a lot courtesy of them. And it gave us an opportunity to displace the incumbent [Avidyne]. It’s exciting to be a part of it.”

Late last year, IS&S had already begun ramping up production to meet Eclipse’s needs for the 2,650 model 500s on order, including the first 100 or so built with the original Avidyne avionics that will be retrofitted with Avio NG.

Meanwhile, the commercial and general aviation retrofit display market is huge, about $7 to $8 billion worth at IS&S’ prices, according to Ptakowski. So far, more than two dozen PC-12s have been upgraded and airlines such as ABX Air and others have opted for IS&S displays in their Boeings. IS&S is developing additional supplemental type certificates for other general aviation upgrades. And it also makes a C-130 upgrade with two PFDs, two MFDs and two engine displays that replace the military turboprop’s 32 round analog engine gauges, saving space and greatly increasing reliability. Cessna is also developing IS&S retrofits for legacy Citation upgrades, although it hasn’t yet announced which airplanes will be part of this program. Cessna’s Citation service centers will install the IS&S modifications.

IS&S is looking to the future and has already demonstrated synthetic vision, runway awareness information and infrared camera views on its displays, but the company is waiting for the certification framework to drive demand for these systems. “There are a lot of possibilities, but they’ve got to be certifiable and safe. They’re all within our capabilities,” Ptakowski said.