Avidyne branches out into complete entry-level systems

 - May 6, 2008, 8:48 AM

Avidyne, the Lincoln, Mass. maker of light airplane avionics, has unveiled a fully integrated cockpit for piston airplanes, turboprops and entry-level jets. The company claims the new system merges cutting-edge technology with low-cost electronics and sensors and promises to “revolutionize” general aviation.

Dan Schwinn, company president and founder, said the new FlightMax Entegra integrated avionics system applies cockpit components from the Eclipse 500 personal jet with Avidyne’s EX5000 multi-function display and low-cost air-data attitude heading reference systems (ADAHRS) designed by company engineers in Boulder, Colo. The result, he said, is a total cockpit for airplanes on the lower end of the price scale that in many ways is the technological equal of systems flying aboard multi-million-dollar business jets and airliners.

The news that Avidyne plans to shift gears from a supplier of standalone avionics products to a developer of complete cockpit systems comes as no surprise. When he founded Avidyne in 1994, Schwinn’s plan was to turn the avionics industry on its head by applying his knowledge of advanced computer systems to the design and production of GA avionics.

“This company was founded with the idea of building complete cockpits for GA aircraft,” said Schwinn. “But until recently there simply wasn’t the enabling technology to make a complete cockpit for GA aircraft possible. As prices for LCDs and sensors continue to drop, we now can provide pilots of light piston airplanes with sophisticated, integrated avionics packages.”

FlightMax Entegra will compete with in-development avionics systems from Honeywell and Goodrich. The difference between Avidyne’s cockpit and Honeywell’s Apex or Goodrich’s SmartDeck, however, is that Avidyne already has OEM customers on board. The Entegra system is currently undergoing flight testing in anticipation of FAA certification early next year. After the system is approved it will become an option in the Cirrus SR22 and be named as standard equipment in the Lancair Columbia 400.

“Designing and building integrated cockpits is going to be our primary business,” said Schwinn. “We are going to be the first to market, and continue from here by creating relationships with customers that really reflect where we want to go from here.”

Building a Better Cockpit

The history of Avidyne is as important to understanding how the company got to where it is today than any of the milestones it has achieved since. In 1985, Schwinn, an MIT graduate, founded a computer network communications company called Shiva, based in Burlington, Mass. After the hugely successful company went public in 1994, Schwinn, then chairman, departed to begin work on a new startup concept that arose from his expert knowledge of computer systems and a love for flying. His enthusiasm was fostered, in part, by his new found wealth, which allowed him to own various light piston airplanes, as well as a nicely equipped Falcon 100.

“As a pilot and aircraft owner, I was struck by the fact that general aviation cockpits had changed very little over the last 30 years,” said Schwinn, who was impressed by the Falcon’s cockpit. “I saw huge potential to develop a core technology and define a new generation of avionics for general aviation.”

Among the most challenging and workload-intensive tasks pilots face, said Schwinn, is in trying to visualize their position relative to terrain, navaids, weather and other aircraft. Pilots flying in aircraft outfitted with traditional cockpit equipments have always had to assimilate such information mentally to get the full “picture” of their situation, while at the same time anticipating how the flight environment would change next. Schwinn saw a chance to use the latest home-computing microprocessors to design low-cost avionics capable of giving GA pilots a better overall view of their situation and of flight hazards.

The company’s first product offerings included moving-map displays, lightning-detection displays  and navigation-management functions. Avidyne’s second-generation FlightMax FSDs provided weather radar, traffic, terrain avoidance and datalink graphical weather capability. The new FlightMax EX-series, now standard equipment on Cirrus and Lancair aircraft, puts FlightMax FSD technology on large-format displays. Everything Avidyne sells has been designed around the concept of giving pilots a clearer picture of their overall situation and helping them avoid flight hazards.

The long-term goal, as stated above, had always been to develop and produce fully integrated flight-deck systems for general aviation aircraft. Then in 1998, Schwinn and Vern Raburn, a good friend, fellow pilot and fomer Microsoft executive, had a chance meeting at engine maker Williams International in Walled Lake, Mich. Raburn was there to meet with Dr. Sam Williams about a partnership whereby Williams would supply the engines for a revolutionary idea for a personal twinjet, a light, six-passenger airplane to be known as the Eclipse 500.

Once Schwinn and Raburn seriously got to talking about the cockpit for the Eclipse 500, it was clear that the low-cost integrated concept Avidyne had been working on could be applied to the Eclipse 500, an airplane that Raburn plans to sell for $837,500 per copy.

Last month, during ceremonies in Albuquerque, N.M., the first completed Eclipse 500 made its public debut. The airplane, fitted with the new Avio avionics package from partners Avidyne, BAE Systems and General Dynamics, is scheduled to fly for the first time this month.

Schwinn said a concept for business jets and turboprops similar to Avio could be applied to other aircraft. A number of manufacturers, including Pilatus, maker of the PC-12 single-engine turboprop, have discussed possibilities with Avidyne. Schwinn said Pilatus is interested in “an Eclipse 500-like cockpit” for the PC-12.

Establishing Stronger GA Ties
Avidyne has also been involved with NASA in the highway-in-the-sky (HITS) program, which seeks to bring synthetic-vision technologies to GA cockpits by providing navigation cues and synthetic terrain on a cockpit display. Schwinn said it would be some time before synthetic vision is certified by the company, but added he has little doubt such technology would enter GA’s mainstream someday.

In the nearer term, Avidyne views aviation weather datalink as a key part of GA’s future, so much so that the company plans to begin shipping several products, including its FlightMax MFDs, with datalink transceivers. The company’s new DX50 datalink box is compatible with the Orbcomm low-orbit satellite system, through which pilots receive Nexrad images and graphic and text Metars.

Avidyne is both the hardware and service provider for the service. Price for the DX50 transceiver by itself is $2,950. Service plans start at $30 per month for what Avidyne said is “average use,” and $60 per month for moderate use. A $99 registration fee applies to all subscribers. Besides the DX50 transceiver, a small satellite antenna must be mounted on the fuselage.

Meanwhile, the company’s FlightMax 800 multifunction display has been certified for use in Embraer Brasilia EMB-120s operated by SkyWest Airlines of St. George, Utah. The airline, said Schwinn, chose the FlightMax MFD as the replacement radar indicator for its fleet of EMB-120s. The FlightMax 800 supports Collins WXR 250/270/300 weather radar systems, and can display Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS) alerts, providing a pathway for the airline to upgrade its fleet to comply with the TAWS mandate. FlightMax 800 overlays the aircraft flight plan from a Bendix/King GNS-XLS FMS, and also provides a full-screen traffic display from TCAS.

And recently the FAA awarded contracts to Rockwell Collins, Honeywell and Avidyne for development of technology that will integrate digital voice and data into air-to-ground communications as part of the next-generation air/ground communications (Nexcom) program. Under terms of the agreements signed in February, the FAA will partially fund the development of VHF datalink mode 3 (VDL-3) radios, which are intended to replace current-generation radios with Nexcom avionics in time for the program’s initial implementation in 2009. Collins and Honeywell are to design analog/digital VDL-3 avionics for the commercial airline market and Avidyne a line of Nexcom radios for general aviation.