Cockpit Avionics

 - July 29, 2008, 11:05 AM

One of the more recent entrants into the market for integrated cockpit systems has emerged as the industry’s most prolific. Garmin has delivered nearly 5,000 of its G1000 integrated avionics systems for installation in a range of general aviation piston airplanes, turboprops and jets since introducing the glass cockpit five years ago. While that milestone certainly is impressive, what’s just as remarkable is that Garmin has also produced more than 12 million GPS products for the automotive market, and countless more for hikers, boaters, hunters and a host of other everyday consumers, many of whom have no idea of the company’s roots in aviation.

Although an increasing share of Garmin’s revenue is derived from the sale of consumer electronics, its rise to prominence is one steeped in avionics lore. It is the tale of two fed-up Bendix/King engineers who quit their jobs in 1989 to found their own company, and who by almost every measure went on to beat their former employer on multiple fronts with products designed to work better, do more, last longer and sell for less.

Today, 18 years after Gary Burrell and Min Kao (the “Gar” and “Min” in Garmin) introduced their first aviation portable GPS receiver, the company has grown into a $3 billion-plus electronics giant that has consistently posted double-digit revenue growth in every segment in which it operates. Garmin now has more than 8,400 employees and sells scores of products that have nothing to do with aviation–like fish finders, GPS-enabled mobile phones, personal digital assistants and even satellite tracking collars that will tell a hunter not only the location of his dogs, but also whether they are running, sitting or treeing quarry. And later this year Garmin plans to introduce a GPS-enabled competitor to Apple’s iPhone. Clearly the company has big plans.

From the start Garmin’s engineering philosophy has centered on technological innovation, explained Gary Kelly, the company’s vice president of marketing. And that’s especially true in aviation. It has been the driver behind every move Garmin has made, from the first basic portable GPS units it introduced in the early 1990s, later with the GNS 430 and 530 GPS/navcoms and more recently with the G1000 and the G300, G600 and G900X siblings created for the light sport, retrofit and experimental aircraft markets.

Not surprisingly, there is a gnawing concern among some at Honeywell and Rockwell Collins that Garmin might be about to further encroach on their turf with a line of products for larger Part 25 business jets.

It was one thing when Cessna selected the G1000 system for its single-engine piston models, but when the Wichita manufacturer also chose the Garmin cockpit for the newest member of the Citation family–the $2.6 million Mustang very light jet–it sent a palpable tremor through the industry that is still being felt four years later. “That’s when we woke up and realized Garmin was for real,” confided a top executive at Rockwell Collins.

Since then Garmin has gone on to rack up an impressive string of contract wins, securing G1000 supplier deals with Cessna for its full single-engine line, including the Caravan, and also with Beechcraft, Diamond Aircraft, Mooney, Piper, Socata, Spectrum Aeronautical and, most recently, Embraer for its Phenom 100 and 300 VLJs and Cirrus for the SR22-G3 in the form of the “Cirrus Perspective” cockpit. All of these systems will be able to accommodate Garmin’s synthetic-vision technology (SVT) software upgrade, going back through earlier serial numbers to the very first Cessna 172s fitted with G1000 avionics in 2003.

Cessna president and CEO Jack Pelton told AIN last month that he envisions Garmin making a move up in the market, saying the Olathe, Kan. firm “absolutely” will be invited to compete against Rockwell Collins and Honeywell on future Citation programs. “Garmin has the product today to compete,” Pelton said. “The three-screen system with autopilot and flight management system that’s in the Mustang today could easily be put into a CJ or a Premier I or any of the competing products in the light jet category. Next time we get ready to do a model refresh, I’m sure we’ll be competing the avionics.”

For obvious reasons Kelly wouldn’t divulge Garmin’s plans for the future, but a jump to the Part 25 realm clearly would involve a much larger certification effort than was undertaken for the development of G1000. Asked what the future might hold, he declined to say specifically that Garmin plans to enter the Part 25 market, but he left open that possibility.

“We plan to continue to innovate, and we intend to continue to grow,” he said. “We will reach out to new platforms, but I’m not going to say per se which direction we’re moving. As you’ve seen so far we have moved into the experimental marketplace, we developed a system for the LSA Skycatcher from Cessna and we continue to broaden our spectrum in the turbine market with various platforms. Part 23 has been fertile ground for us and we’ve done quite well there. But, of course, we continue to look and explore whether there are opportunities outside Part 23 for Garmin.”

Kelly has been with the company almost from the start, joining Garmin in 1992 as director of marketing. He was there for the introductions of portable GPS receivers, panel-mount navigators, navcom radios, transponders, audio panels and, more recently, TAWS, weather radar and an autopilot that is fast winning accolades among GA pilots for its smoothness and precision. He knows Garmin and the avionics industry probably as well as anyone, and the secret to his company’s success, he said, is really no secret at all.

“We’re firm believers that if you build quality, reliable, innovative products and support them very well, you win,” he said. “It’s a pretty simple formula, really.” Garmin has finished first in every avionics product support survey conducted by AIN for the last several years, lending credibility to Kelly’s declaration. But it hasn’t always been an easy goal to accomplish, he said. “It’s sometimes challenging to do, but we think we’ve done a pretty good job.”

Garmin’s SVT
Synthetic vision was envisioned as a key component of the G1000 system early on at Garmin, Kelly said. Some of the initial mock-ups of G1000 as far back as 10
years ago incorporated ideas for the technology. Garmin chose the landscape screen layout for G1000 specifically because the designers knew that it could better incorporate the 3-D type of view they had in mind. The early flying prototypes of G1000 included SVT, but the company decided to certify the basic system first and then start the task of test flying the synthetic- vision portion of the system. Adding SVT to a basic G1000 system involves only a software upload and no extra hardware, Kelly said.

While the technology itself is impressive, what really caught the attention of pilots who potentially will fly with SVT was the quoted list price for the upgrade. Soon after certification, Diamond Aircraft announced that SVT would be offered in the DA40 piston single for $9,995. This announcement came on the heels of Honeywell’s certification of synthetic vision in Gulfstream’s top models, an enhancement that sells for around $300,000. Honeywell was quick to point out that Gulfstream sets the price for SVS in its airplanes, and that the certifications involved entirely different classes of airplane–but in the minds of many the large disparity was hard to explain.

Volume helps to clarify the $290,000 price difference. Garmin anticipates selling SVT for thousands of piston airplanes and probably nearly every jet and turboprop the G1000 system is sold in. Honeywell, however, claims that its SVS database is far superior to Garmin’s. Using information supplied by the enhanced ground proximity warning system, the six-degree-arc- second data in Honeywell’s SVS has been verified to be accurate during more than 12 million flight hours, the company says. “Do you need that kind of resolution when you’re flying along in a 172 at 100 knots? Maybe not. But in a $50 million Gulfstream you absolutely want our data,” said a Honeywell spokesman.

Besides the 3-D view of hills, obstacles, bodies of water and runways, SVT also provides color-coded terrain and obstacle warnings on the PFD, as well
as real-time traffic that appears as moving TCAS-like symbols and highway-in-the-sky (HITS) guidance in the form of “flying rectangles.” Honeywell’s SVS doesn’t offer any of these extras, although it includes a number of features the Garmin system does not.

When crosswinds are strong, for example, Honeywell’s SVS display automatically reverts to so-called “heading plus” mode, whereby the visual scene shifts to the left or right by as much as 40 degrees so that the flight-path marker and an inverted v marker are always shown on the display together and the pilots can see where they are going as well as where the nose of the airplane is actually pointing. One of the biggest benefits the shifted scene provides is letting pilots know exactly where they should be looking for the runway when they break out of the clouds.

Another helpful feature of the SVS display in the Gulfstream is a cyan-colored breadcrumb trail that follows an extended runway centerline out to a distance of 15 nm. The runway itself is shown inside a cyan box, making it readily apparent to the pilots which approach is dialed into the FMS. On the Garmin SVT display, a small sign containing the airport identifier sticks out of the ground. The good news for pilots who will fly with either of these systems is that enhancements to each can be added through a simple software upload.

While Garmin plots its next moves, Honeywell, Rockwell Collins and most other avionics manufacturers are steadily moving forward with plans of their own for product enhancements and upgrades. On the lower end of the market Avidyne is hard at work on what many are referring to as the Entegra II cockpit, while Chelton Flight Systems is preparing for the introduction of a system that will build on the success it had with the FlightLogic EFIS, the industry’s first SVS display. Even tiny startup manufacturer Aspen Avionics is preparing for what appears to be a relatively potent cockpit upgrade option in the form of the EFD1000 ATP EFIS.

Honeywell has just embarked on the development of the Plane-View II cockpit for the Gulfstream G650, which it says represents an “evolutionary step” forward from the current Plane-View system flying in the G350/ 450/500/550. PlaneView is itself a customized version of the Primus Epic integrated avionics system from Honeywell, flying today aboard a variety of business jets, including all new Falcons (in the form of the Dassault EASy cockpit, another customized system), the Cessna Citation Sovereign, the Hawker 4000 and soon the Embraer Lineage.

Despite being an entirely new, clean-sheet airplane, the G650 won’t incorporate major architectural changes that would make PlaneView II vastly different from the cockpits flying in Gulfstream’s other top models. The G650’s flight displays will be identical in size to those in the G350/450/500/550 and will incorporate the same drop-down-style menus and graphical flight planning tools as the current models do, as well as synthetic-vision technology, RNP approach capability and other tools that are available in current-production Gulfstreams as part of the latest PlaneView software version.

While software upgrades will be the primary way of adding capabilities to PlaneView II, there will be several notable changes to the hardware in the G650 cockpit as well. One of them is the inclusion of a standby multifunction controller (SMC) that combines the functionality of the traditional display controller with standby instruments and other features. Where the G550 has an electronic standby attitude indicator and HSI installed in the middle of the panel just below the PFD, the G650 will instead incorporate these instruments into the SMC’s three-inch by four-inch high-resolution LCD. The SMC can also be used as a weather radar control panel and for display of other functions such as engine oil, hydraulic fluid and tire pressure states and refueling controls.

Pro Line Fusion
Rockwell Collins announced its first all-new avionics system in a dozen years last fall with the unveiling of Pro Line Fusion. Selected as standard equipment in new versions of the Bombardier Global Express XRS and Global 5000, the cockpit promises to combine the latest sensor technology with advanced displays to give pilots the claimed ultimate for any business jet. The most notable feature of Fusion is the system’s 15-inch displays, claimed to provide the best resolution in the industry. The Global models will include four of these panels, with one in front of each pilot and two stacked in the center, similar to the arrangement of Dassault’s EASy cockpit.

While Bombardier was the first business jet manufacturer to commit to the Fusion system, others quickly followed the Canadian company’s lead to hand Rockwell Collins the majority of new OEM business awarded so far this year. Additional contracts from Cessna for Pro Line Fusion in the Citation Columbus, Embraer in the Legacy 450 and 500 and Bombardier in the Learjet 85 mean a plateful of concurrent certification programs that will need to be managed deftly to avoid program delays.

Pro Line Fusion will incorporate synthetic- and enhanced-vision technologies, with the eventual goal of merging the two scenes to provide a single picture that gives pilots a clear view of the world ahead no matter the weather conditions or time of day. Collins is studying the feasibility of fusing EVS with SVS images on the PFD as well as on the head-up guidance system, and has tested the idea with NASA. A certifi-cation basis for such a merging of technologies does not yet exist, the company concedes, but many in the company believe that so-called sensor fusion will become a reality in the near future.

While synthetic vision technology isn’t commonplace in aviation yet, the technology is catching on fast with avionics makers, OEMs and the FAA. Universal Avionics was the first company to install and certify SVS in a Part 25 business jet, securing approval for its Vision 1 system two years ago after flight trials in a Challenger 601-3A. Vision 1 consists of a worldwide terrain, obstacle and airport database that uses internal graphics adapters to present a compelling view of the world on an EFI-890R PFD’s 8.9-inch-diagonal active-matrix LCD screen. Certification of the technology was a long time in coming as the FAA grappled with potential pitfalls of SVS. The chief concern has been that Vision 1 and other SVS designs would be so compelling that pilots might use them in poor weather to fly under low cloud decks.

Certification of Vision 1 appeared to put to rest many of the remaining objections FAA officials had about SVS, and today all of the major avionics manufacturers report that the agency has warmed considerably to the technology, viewing its widespread introduction in aviation as a huge potential safety benefit. Questions still remain, however, about just how much information the FAA will allow on the PFD before the scene is deemed to be too cluttered. So far Garmin has shown that a lot of information can safely be included without detracting from the PFD’s basic functions or the pilot’s ability to interpret the information presented.

Other Players
Innovative Solutions & Support has been providing cockpit displays for the Eclipse 500 for a number of months without any difficulties, the Exton, Pa. company reports, allowing it to focus on other projects that had to wait while certification of the Avio NG cockpit for Eclipse was ongoing. The company last month planned to start flight testing a three-display cockpit upgrade for older Cessna Citations through a program being developed with the OEM. IS&S president Roman Ptakowski said TSO and STC in the Citation 560 should be in hand during the third quarter.

IS&S has also gone back to the drawing board to introduce an enhanced version of its retrofit cockpit for the Pilatus PC-12. The reworked offering includes a single-side cockpit option that allows an operator to save on cost by upgrading only the left side of the instrument panel. Ptakowski said IS&S will give buyers the option of upgrading to a full display system at a later date. IS&S also hopes to be able to bring WAAS functionality to the PC-12 in the fourth quarter. The company decided to modify an originally certified retrofit cockpit for the PC-12 after Honeywell certified the Primus Apex system in the PC-12 NG. IS&S said many of the PC-12 operators who elected to buy the IS&S display upgrade had been installing the system in new airplanes, demand for which fell off sharply once Pilatus began offering the up-graded version of the airplane.

In spite of increased competitive pressure from Garmin, Avidyne continues to make strides as it unveils the pieces for a follow-on cockpit to the Entegra system that competes head-to-head with the G1000 system. Avidyne’s recently introduced FMS900W WAAS-enabled GPS navcom flight management system is a clean-sheet system that is designed to dramatically cut the workload of pilots flying turbine-class airplanes.

System components include single or dual remote-mount line-replaceable units, each integrated with Avidyne’s GPS723 WAAS/ RNP GPS sensor and a DVX740 VHF navcom radio module. The FMS includes GeoFill and Vectors Mode features. GeoFill simplifies flight-plan entry by predicting and displaying the next waypoint or airport of a flight, based on the aircraft’s position. Vectors Mode enhances situational awareness by drawing heading vectors directly onto the system’s moving map.

Avidyne also recently unveiled a weather datalink receiver targeted at European pilots. The MLX770 datalink unit receives weather graphics, metars, TAFs, winds and temperatures aloft from aviation weather specialist WSI and delivers the data through the worldwide Iridium satellite network. In addition to providing weather data to aircraft flying almost anywhere over Western Europe, the two-way transceiver will let pilots send and receive text messages in flight. The unit is compatible with Entegra and the EX500 multifunction display. List price is £7,995 ($12,392).

Weather graphics are sent to the airplane for an area within about 200 nm around the planned route of flight, with updates occurring about once every 15 minutes. Service pricing will vary from around £50 to £80 ($78 to $124) for 10 hours of flying per month, depending on how much data is transmitted, a spokesman said. Avidyne will also offer ground-based radar and lightning detection as “premium” services and plans to add satellite imagery soon. Initial deliveries of the transceiver will start later this year.

L-3 Avionics Systems is hoping to penetrate the market for GA glass cockpits with its SmartDeck system, which has been in development for many years but only recently obtained its TSO and initial STC. The first installation approval for the avionics was in a Cirrus SR22, an airplane that is offered to new buyers with either the Avidyne or Garmin glass systems. Cirrus has also picked L-3 as the avionics “development partner” for the single-engine jet it flew for the first time last month. Cirrus CEO Alan Klapmeier said recently that Avidyne, Garmin and L-3 are all in the running to supply the cockpit for the Cirrus jet, adding that a production decision won’t be announced for at least a year.

The first thing pilots transitioning from Entegra or G1000 to the SmartDeck cockpit will notice about the L-3 system is a dramatic reduction in the number of knobs and buttons needed to control its various functions. Engineers used the design philosophy from the iPod to simplify the pilot interface wherever possible, and by and large appear to have succeeded in making a user-friendly avionics system. Designers, for example, managed to limit the number of knobs that are included on the center control panel to just two, one for controlling the PFD and one for the MFD. Bezel softkeys are used to activate various system features, which can then be controlled with the control panel knobs.

SmartDeck incorporates primary and multifunction flight displays with a separate smaller screen below these displays dedicated to flight plan and communication management. The system integrates several of L-3’s situational awareness technologies, providing detailed data on navigation, traffic avoidance, terrain avoidance, communication, flight controls, engine parameters and enhanced vision.
Behind the scenes, SmartDeck consists of two air-data attitude heading reference systems (ADAHRS), two data concentrators, two magnetometers, two WAAS GPS receivers, a flight display controller, two software-defined navcom radios, a mode-C transponder and S-Tec IntelliFlight 1950C digital autopilot.

SmartDeck’s center console display is used to enter flight plan data and select radio frequencies and transponder codes. A flight data control panel located between the PFD and MFD has the two concentric knobs and other buttons that control information on the displays. There is also an audio control panel and mode selector panel for the autopilot located in the center. Overall, the layout is cleaner and perhaps more visually appealing than G1000, but it’s still too early to say whether pilots will embrace SmartDeck’s simpler design over the Garmin system and its well understood system logic.

More Competition in Hot Market
With the recent slowdown in the GA piston airplane market it’s natural to think that avionics makers would look to the still-red-hot business jet market as a potential opportunity for growth. Chelton Flight Systems has made some strides in that direction with certifications of its FlightLogic EFIS in a number of turbine models, including King Airs and the Citation 500. What happens in the next several months at Chelton will be telling–and worth paying attention to.

There have been some important changes in the business structure at Chelton recently. Parent company Cobham purchased autopilot maker S-Tec earlier this year and has decided to merge its newest acquisition with the Chelton subsidiary, creating what executives hope will be a formidable competitor in an already crowded market. Part of the consolidation will involve relocating Chelton Flight Systems from Boise, Idaho, to Texas, where the two companies will operate as one from S-Tec’s headquarters.

S-Tec employs 180 people and operates out of a 10-acre engineering and production campus at Mineral Wells Airport, about 80 miles west of Dallas. The S-Tec facility has a 57,000-sq-ft administration, engineering and manufacturing plant and a 28,000-sq-ft hangar that houses the company’s flight operations. The newly integrated business unit will operate under a single management team by the end of the year, Cobham officials said. Chelton Flight Systems has been focusing on the military and rotorcraft markets in recent years but plans a stronger push into business aviation after the management restructuring and location move are completed.

Sandel Avionics, meanwhile, is reporting positive reactions from buyers of its upgraded version of the SN3500 EHSI (electronic horizontal situation indicator) that features LED (light-emitting diode) backlighting similar to the technology introduced last year in its larger displays. Providing a brighter and sharper display image, the LED technology replaces Sandel’s previous backlighting technique with a long-life glass panel rated at 10,000 hours MTBF. Benefits include better sunlight readability, improved resolution and reduced maintenance costs, according to Sandel. The company introduced LED backlighting in its 4-ATI primary flight and nav displays last year.