Spending a week at the annual EAA AirVenture Oshkosh show never fails to exhilarate and inspire, but at the same time it can frustrate. The good news is that we U.S. citizens are extraordinarily lucky to live in a country where the federal authorities have decided that it's OK to allow us the freedom to design, build and fly an aeronautical device of our own creation, with few restrictions. We can also insert all manner of sophisticated yet uncertified avionics into the instrument panels of these flying machines (although we can't fly IFR without uncertified avionics).
The technological advancements made by the experimental aviation community never cease to amaze me. For example, I flew a Remos GX Light Sport Aircraft in Oshkosh, equipped with full glass cockpit, altitude-hold and nav-tracking autopilot and synthetic vision. The entire composite two-seat airplane, complete with its avionics, sells for half the retail price for just the synthetic vision upgrade for a Falcon 900. Of course, the synvis in the Falcon is FAA-certified and the Remos synvis by Dynon Avionics remains uncertified. But that price discrepancy raises some important questions: is certification really necessary and why does it cost so much?
Those questions became even more prominent after I visited with Ruben and Ananda Leon at the Levil Technology booth at AirVenture. The Leons, a father-daughter engineering team (both are pilots, too), have developed a tiny attitude heading reference system (AHRS) in a palm-sized, battery-powered box. This AHRS, incidentally, provides attitude information for Hilton Softwareπs new iPad synthetic vision system, which runs on Hiltonπs WingX app and costs just $99 per year (plus $99 for WingX).
The Leons also have an AD-AHRS for $995, which includes air data inputs, so an iPad developer like Hilton could provide actual airspeed and barometric altitude on an iPad app, with a little extra hardware.
But getting back to the original questions about certification... Ruben Leon said he is working with an instrument manufacturer to certify his AHRS as part of a backup attitude indicator. The certification cost is going to be a staggering $1 million! If you wonder why certified avionics cost so much, there you go.
The Levil Technology AHRS that is being certified as part of this instrument is exactly the same as the $795 AHRS that Levil sells for the iPad app and other portable devices. The only difference between the non-certified and certified versions will be the testing and validation that the FAA requires.
This raises the original question: is certification really necessary?
Another way to look at this: Does $1 million of testing make Levilπs AHRS $1 million safer?
I think the answer is easy: no. All that money does is try to satisfy the bureaucratic beast that the FAA has become and make all parties involved feel as if they are protected from a liability standpoint.
Seriously, at the low cost of the Levil AHRS and an iPad, a pilot could buy two or three of each. If one fails, throw it out and grab another.
And a company wanting to use the Levil AHRS to build a backup instrument ought to be able to show compliance with some more reasonable set of standards that doesnπt cost $1 million to prove. So far, the ASTM industry consensus standards system used for the Light Sport Aircraft industry seems to be working. The accident rate for FAA-certified light aircraft and all of the certified equipment in those aircraft isnπt that great. So would lack of certification make any difference?