New players follow Garmin into SVS market for GA

 - December 30, 2008, 4:13 AM

It didn’t take long for competitors to introduce synthetic-vision system (SVS) avionics enhancements after Garmin last spring removed the cloak of secrecy from its long-anticipated synthetic-vision technology (SVT) upgrade for the G1000 avionics system. But apart from releasing product brochures and showing prototype hardware, two chief rivals in the market for general aviation SVS–Avidyne of Lincoln, Mass., and L-3 Avionics Systems in Grand Rapids, Mich.–couldn’t hope to match Garmin’s speed to market.

Both manufacturers are still working toward certification even as the Garmin system is appearing in the cockpits of everything from Diamond’s DA40 piston single to Cessna’s Citation Mustang. The head start puts these competitors at a disadvantage, but strong adoption of SVS technology should mean there’s room for a number of players–or at least there will be after the economy starts coming back.

L-3 Avionics Systems brought a developmental version of the SVS it is planning for its SmartDeck cockpit to October’s NBAA Convention in Orlando to show prospective customers and journalists. That presented the opportunity to try out both the G1000-based SVT and L-3 SVS on back-to-back days in similar airplanes. First up was a trip aloft in a Cirrus SR22 GTS with the Perspective by Garmin cockpit, an avionics system with the underpinnings of G1000 but which adds ample doses of the Cirrus operating philosophy.

This flight departed from Orlando Executive Airport and was followed the next morning by a flight from nearby Kissimmee Gateway Airport in a stock SR22 that has been modified with L-3’s SmartDeck system. Not surprisingly the Garmin system was the more refined of the two, but SmartDeck’s SVS presentation was notable for the smoothness of the display image even during rapid maneuvers.

Where SmartDeck lost major points was on landing at Leesburg Airport when the SVS display suddenly reverted to the traditional blue-over-brown presentation after an apparent loss of GPS signal integrity. Another trip around the pattern led to the same result. Both times the SVS view disappeared while turning from base to final to Runway 31. Company officials were at a loss to explain why the system would fail during one of the most critical phases of flight, although they assured passengers that it had never happened before and believe it may have been a location-specific anomaly.

Garmin’s SVT technology adds a compelling 3-D view of the world to the displays–including terrain, bodies of water, obstacles taller than 200 feet and runways–as well as traffic targets that grow larger as they get closer and highway-in-the-sky navigation cues in the form of “flying rectangles.” One of the more interesting additions to the Perspective cockpit is a blue button on the autopilot control panel marked LVL. Pushing this button immediately brings the airplane into a straight-and-level attitude, something that’s more useful than it might sound at first if only to give the pilot time to assess why the avionics are doing something he or she perhaps did not expect.

The Garmin Perspective cockpit had a more intuitive engine status display than the SmartDeck System, but the latter’s more simplified layout and use of fewer buttons and knobs will probably be welcomed by those pilots who find themselves a bit overwhelmed behind the Garmin glass. Still, L-3 Avionics and Avidyne have a lot of work to do to catch up with Garmin, which is gaining valuable operational experience with the G1000 while the two other systems edge toward certification. Both companies expect to gain approval for their respective SVS offerings later this year.

Not only did Garmin bring synthetic vision to the light GA market first, it started thinking about SVT earlier than its competitors as well. Synthetic vision was expected to be a key component of the G1000 system early on. Some of the initial mockups of G1000 as far back as 10 years ago, in fact, incorporated ideas for the technology. Garmin chose a landscape screen layout for the G1000 specifically because it could better incorporate the 3-D type of view engineers had in mind. And while early flying prototypes of G1000 included a basic version of SVT, the company decided to certify the base system first and then begin the task of fully developing the synthetic-vision portion of the system.

While the technology itself is impressive, what really caught the attention of pilots was the quoted list price for the SVT upgrade. Soon after certification, Diamond Aircraft announced that SVT would be offered in the DA40 piston single for $9,995, while Cessna said it would include SVT for free to buyers who took delivery of a new Skylane within 30 days. Cirrus is offering the Garmin Perspective cockpit upgrade, including SVT, for $48,000.

On the Garmin SVT display, a sign containing the airport identifier sticks out of the ground, eliminating any confusion about which airport lies ahead.

Cirrus and Garmin worked together for more than two years to incorporate changes the lightplane maker wanted in the system. The result of the partnership is a cockpit featuring large, 12-inch displays, dual AHRS and new autopilot logic and features, such as the LVL button. The Cirrus version of Garmin’s popular avionics system also includes a new control panel positioned below the displays near the power lever. It includes heading, altitude-select and course knobs along with autopilot controls and a full keyboard. L-3 has incorporated an LCD-based center control unit in SmartDeck for several functions, including radio tuning.

Chelton Flight Systems offers an SVS display for light GA airplanes in the form of its FlightLogic EFIS, while in the business aviation realm Universal Avionics and Honeywell have gained certification for the technology. Rockwell Collins has announced the SVS-based Pro Line Fusion cockpit, due for certification in 2011.