Portable Hardware for Aviation Apps

 - January 27, 2020, 9:01 AM

The ecosystem of aviation apps that run on portable devices changed this year, with the news that Boeing purchased the developer of ForeFlight, probably the most popular electronic flight bag (EFB) app for pilots. This not only underscored ForeFlight’s growing use by professional pilots but also Boeing unit Jeppesen’s acknowledgment that its own EFB apps were not as popular as ForeFlight.

Of the three platforms for portable devices used by pilots, Apple’s iPad remains the most popular, in part because ForeFlight is designed only to run on Apple’s iOS (operating system). Android-based devices are in second place, followed by Microsoft’s Surface tablet/laptop, which runs on Microsoft’s Windows OS.

The popularity of the hardware platform has an enormous influence on the availability of software, especially in the small-scale aviation market. Windows did have an advantage early on as many EFB manufacturers built their devices on Windows PCs, including going through the enormous hassle and expense to get them certified by aviation regulators. However, the certification process itself ended up making these devices too expensive and hobbled the ability of the manufacturers to update the software quickly. The market was ripe for disruption, and this came about with the development of portable devices that were easy to use, reliable, quick to update, relatively inexpensive, and as it turns out, not subject to the same certification requirements.

Essentially, pilots just began using iPods, iPhones, iPads, Android phones and tablets, and Windows laptops to carry their maps and charts. Of course, there were products that tried to fill the role of dedicated chart reader before the advent of the tablet, but none survived in the small aviation market. In what turned out to be spectacularly bad timing, in 2009 SolidFX began selling its iRex electronic paper-based device loaded with Jeppesen charts. In 2010, Apple unveiled the iPad, and Android tablets quickly followed. SolidFX ended up suing Boeing and Jeppesen. The dispute centered on a claim for lost profits that SolidFX could have earned with its own tablet app if Jeppesen hadn’t created the FliteDeck app and refused to provide the necessary software toolkit for SolidFX to deliver Jeppesen charts in its app. Of course, SolidFX could have avoided this issue by simply using U.S.-government-issued charts, which are free, but this wouldn’t have included the charts outside the U.S. that Jeppesen also provides.

ForeFlight’s early efforts showed pilots how easy it was to access charts on their Apple devices, and the advent of the iPad accelerated this shift. For users who didn’t like the Apple ecosystem, Android offered an alternative, and there are apps that work on both iOS and Android, such as Garmin Pilot, WingX, and iFly GPS. Some airlines insist on using Windows devices, and this left a small market open for Windows-based devices. That market remains tiny, however, and represents a relatively small portion of the EFB software arena.

Here are more details about the three hardware platforms and some of the software the pilots are flying with.

Apple iPad

A problem for iPad users is that Apple keeps improving the devices on a regular basis, and eventually the most current applications won’t run on older devices. The latest version of ForeFlight, for example, requires iPads that can be upgraded to a more recent version of iOS. ForeFlight now lists the iPad Air, iPad mini 2, and iPhone 5S as the minimum, although older devices can run older versions of ForeFlight. The new, low-cost entry-level iPad is also fully capable of running the latest version of ForeFlight.

The iPad arena has grown with new models that offer new capabilities that pilots might enjoy, and this is often enough to stimulate a buying decision. Perhaps in recognition of the iPad’s popularity, most aircraft OEMs are delivering their performance calculation and weight-and-balance software in iPad versions. Flight planning utilities like Aircraft Performance Group’s iPreFlight Genesis, Universal Weather’s UvGO, Collins Aerospace’s ArincDirect, Honeywell GoDirect Flight Bag Pro, and others all run on the iPad, further cementing the device’s popularity among pilots.

The latest and greatest iPad is the Pro series, available in 12.9- and 11-inch sizes. While all of the newer iPads work with the first-generation Apple Pencil, the Pros can use the second-generation Pencil, which has a much more convenient charging mechanism where the Pencil simply attaches magnetically to the side of the iPad Pro. The first-generation Pencil plugs into a Lightning port, which can be inconvenient and awkward.

In either case, the Pencil makes using apps that allow drawing and annotation much easier, because it automatically detects and eliminates any wrist contact while writing on the screen. This is a much more natural way to write and makes using ForeFlight’s ScratchPad writing tools much more worthwhile. ForeFlight includes templates for ATIS, pilot reports, and IFR clearances, as well as blank pages for typing text or drawing, plus annotation on maps and charts. Most other EFB apps offer annotation tools, such as FlyQ, WingX, Garmin Pilot, FltPlan Go, iFly GPS, etc., including drawing on charts, but not all allow drawing on maps.

The Pro’s screen is somewhat sharper thanks to its “Liquid Retina” display, and a big advantage of the larger size is less need to zoom in when trying to read fine print on charts. The iPad mini is an excellent size for aircraft with limited space, but a little harder to read chart information without zooming in. The iPad Air at 10.5 inches and iPad at 10.2 inches are sufficiently large too. The main difference between these two is the iPad runs on the A10 processor, not the faster A12 in the Air and latest fifth-generation mini. The Pro has the A12X, and it is the only iPad with face recognition: the others still use the Touch ID button. For a capable portable device at a bargain price, it’s hard to beat the regular iPad, which retails for $329 but occasionally drops to $250 or lower. The Pro versions start at $799, but if planning to store more than a few apps and all their data, more memory may be needed, pushing the price higher, not to mention the added cost of the Pencil ($99 for first-generation, $129 for second-generation).

Android

As popular as the Android OS is, development of EFB applications for these devices has lagged compared to the iPad. Android tablets are available in a seemingly infinite variety of sizes and configurations, but despite major developers like ForeFlight declining to port their products onto Android, there are some robust products available for the platform.

Garmin has been one of the strongest Android supporters, continually updating the Android version of Garmin Pilot, although it still lags behind the functionality of the iPad version. Garmin’s purchase of FltPlan last year added a second EFB app—FltPlan Go—to its stable, and now FltPlan Go is one of the rare EFB apps—and the only free app—that offers the same functionality on iOS, Android, and Windows platforms. The EFB from iFly GPS also runs on all three platforms, and this is the only paid-for app that offers this kind of multi-platform capability.

WingX continues supporting Android, and its Android version is fairly closely matched to the functionality of WingX on the iPad. However, the Android version of WingX doesn’t offer the Traca feature, which allows iOS users to trace a route by drawing on the screen, nor the iOS version’s Black Box data recorder.

There are a surprising amount of Android EFB apps, including the free Avare, AvPlan EFB (iOS and Android), DroidEFB, AvNav, Naviator, SkyDemon (iOS and Android), and others.

The easy availability of inexpensive Android tablets and free apps like Avare and FltPlan Go (WingX is free for flight instructors and active and retired military aviators) makes Android a useful way to carry along an independent backup EFB device.

The best attribute of Android is that the latest versions of EFB apps run perfectly well on older Android tablets.

Windows Surface Go

Sadly, one of the best modern tablet computers, Microsoft’s Surface series, is the least-supported by aviation EFB app developers. While early versions of the Microsoft tablet suffered from performance issues, the latest Surface products are a well-designed alternative to iOS and Android devices. The Surface runs the full version of the Windows 10 OS, which makes it more of a two-in-one tablet/laptop than a regular tablet. This means the Surface can run any Windows program, making it a useful all-in-one computer for work and to run the few EFB apps that are available in Windows.

I’ve been testing a Surface Go for the past year, and it the only tablet-type computer I can carry that can run the InDesign software that we use for magazine layouts along with the EFB apps that are available. To get the same functionality in the Apple world, I have to carry two devices, an iPad and a MacBook Air.

This Surface Go is the LTE Advanced model and includes Wi-Fi and LTE cellular connectivity.

There are three EFB apps that run on Windows computers, but only two available to the general public. This version, with 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage plus 4G+ cellular connectivity, GPS receiver, and Wi-Fi, sells for $679. If cellular service is not needed, the entry-level Surface Go with 64-GB storage and 4-GB RAM sells for $399, but it would need an external GPS. Battery life for the Go with cellular is up to 8.5 hours. With a 10-inch screen, this Go weighs 1.17 pounds, not including the Type Cover. An available dock ($132.99) makes connecting the Surface tablet to external accessories easier, with two high-definition video ports, a gigabit Ethernet port, four USB 3.0 ports, and an audio output.

The Go is a solid computer and tablet, and at 10 inches, just about the perfect size for a variety of flight decks. Useful accessories include the Surface Slim Pen ($149.99) or Surface Pen ($99.99) and Type Cover ($129.99), which includes a trackpad. The Pen is a helpful way of interacting with the Go, and the Type Cover makes typing much easier, although I found the trackpad somewhat over-sensitive. When flying with the Go, I found it worked better to use the touchscreen, either with a finger or the Pen, instead of the Type Cover.

Windows EFB Apps

Jeppesen’s FliteDeck has long been available in a Windows version, but not for just anyone to buy, only for large fleet operators like airlines, some of which refuse to get on the Apple bandwagon. Jeppesen doesn’t see a market opportunity for a Windows version of FliteDeck for individual purchase, which probably has a lot to do with Boeing’s investment in buying ForeFlight and that ForeFlight is the company’s focus for EFB apps. Jeppesen stopped supporting Mobile FliteDeck VFR on December 31, 2019, moving existing subscribers to ForeFlight, but the other FliteDeck versions are still available for the iPad for general users.

As for Windows versions of FliteDeck, Jeppesen provided this statement to AIN: “We continue to monitor market adoption and customer requests of the Windows platform as an EFB technology in business and general aviation, but at this time it has not reached a level that would allow us to justify the investment needed. Apple iPads continue to be the market leader for EFBs in business and general aviation. In addition, we will be working to merge capabilities between Mobile FliteDeck and ForeFlight Mobile over time.”

For diehard Windows users, the sole choices for EFBs now are Garmin’s FltPlan Go and Adventure Pilot’s iFly GPS. Both are capable, full-featured EFBs, although iFly GPS also offers synthetic vision and a vertical profile display. FltPlan Go is free, while iFly GPS is $149.98 per year, plus $24.99 for the multi-platform option, which allows simultaneous installation on Windows, iOS, and Android devices. A drawback for international travelers is that these apps primarily serve pilots flying in the U.S., although FltPlan Go includes charts for Canada and the Caribbean and weather briefing and flight planning in Canada, the Caribbean, Bahamas, Mexico, and Central America.

FltPlan Go’s strength is its integration with the FltPlan website, which offers additional tools for flight planning such as airport information, checklists, weight-and-balance, takeoff and landing data card, and integration with paid-for services such as eAPIS U.S. Customs clearance, safety management system, flight tracking, and international handling in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Like most modern EFB apps, FltPlan Go has a moving-map with own-ship position (when GPS information is available) and overlay of terminal charts, ADS-B In weather and traffic, and SiriusXM Weather on the map. FltPlan Go works with a variety of ADS-B In receivers. It also integrates with the X-Plane and FSX and Prepar3D simulation platforms, which means that users can practice flying with FltPlan Go on either of the three device types before taking to the skies.

Unfortunately, iFly GPS doesn’t yet offer simulator integration, but hopefully, this will be available in a future version.

The iFly GPS features are on par with other sophisticated EFB apps, specifically the ability to select arrival and departure procedures from the map and add them to the flight plan, as well as selecting an instrument approach at the destination, which is added to the flight plan and shown on the map. Weather briefings are available via Leidos’s briefing service, and iFly GPS allows the filing of flight plans. One area where it comes up short in comparison to other EFB apps is in the lack of weight-and-balance and performance calculations. Current weather information is available on the map, and it is possible to optimize a flight plan based on altitude and forecast winds.

The ability to draw on the map and charts is another helpful iFly GPS feature, aided by the Surface Pen. Sketches can also be done on airport diagrams and approach charts and pre-loaded blank pages. In the case of sketches on charts, the drawings remain with the original document and don’t transfer onto that document when it is overlaid on the map.

Mounting Schemes

A final note on the three tablet EFB hardware platforms: one might assume that the more popular the hardware, the more accessories that are available for that particular tablet. But that isn’t necessarily true. The robust Pivot cases, popular with airline pilots, are available for most iPad models and also some of the Microsoft Surface products, although not yet for the Surface Go.

While MyGoFlight’s kneeboards and mountable cases are designed to fit most iPad models, the company does make cradles that can fit almost any type of tablet from 7 to 13 inches, and this would work for Android and Surface tablets.

Ram also offers a huge variety of yoke attachments and suctions cup mounts with tablet cradles that can fit tablets of any size.