Datalink Roundup

Weather to Go

March 1, 2004

You're headed from Jackson, Mississippi, to Brownsville, Texas, and here's how your day is going: Alarm didn't go off; running late; spilled coffee driving to the airport while on the cell phone getting a briefing from flight service (yeah, you shouldn't drink, drive, and talk on the phone all at once, but these are life's pressures; at least there's no shaving or makeup involved). Thank goodness the weather's supposed to be good, right?

Now, en route, you're feeling like maybe you drank too much of that coffee; it's bumpy, there's a big, fat headwind, and what's this? ATC talking at 20 knots gusting to 30: "Attention all aircraft: Convective Sigmet 11C valid until 2055 Zulu, an area from 50 west-southwest of Lufkin to 120 south-southwest Lake Charles to 100 southeast of Palacios to...." Wait a minute, where's Palacios? What's next? Did he say Brownsville? Was that embedded thunderstorms with tops to Flight Level 450? Oh man, you missed half of it. "Contact flight service...."

Now you're a believer in that a-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words thing. Where are all those places? How bad is the weather? Can you get through? Wouldn't it be great to have a picture of the weather right there in the cockpit with you — just like watching The Weather Channel, but without the talent always standing in front of the one place you're interested in?

Welcome to the twenty-first century, where such datalink technology has moved from broken pipe dream to reality. The data pipe to the cockpit is not only fixed, but also it's big and fat with graphical weather, traffic, and late-breaking airspace updates you can use on every flight. Have your weather graphics delivered any way you want them: via ground network or satellite. Display them on your panel-mount multifunction display or on the tablet computer on your knee. You want fries with that?

While the capability to get such data to the cockpit is here now, which system is right for you, whether you're a renter or the owner of a simple single, a high-performance single, twin, turboprop, or jet? There are options and solutions in nearly every price range. We've rounded up all of the possibilities, flown with many of them, and put together the following briefs on each system.

With any of these systems, the next time ATC spits out a convective sigmet for some place you've never heard of, you won't care because you'll have the picture right there in front of you. — Thomas B. Haines


ADS-B

Automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) appears to be the up-and-coming new datalink system of the very near future. First tested in Alaska under a program known as Capstone, ADS-B is part of the FAA's Safe Flight 21 initiative. ADS-B is an FAA-industry bundle of datalink services that provides traffic and weather information for presentation on a single cockpit display.

For traffic data, the system relies on GPS navigation information transmitted back and forth between participating aircraft, and between aircraft and ground-based ATC traffic surveillance radars.

What does the pilot see? Two layers of air traffic information — one set from other aircraft fitted out with their own on-board ADS-B datalink transceivers and another set beamed up from ATC facilities. This is traffic information service-broadcast, or TIS-B. This lets pilots see the same traffic targets as those seen by ground-bound air traffic controllers.

When it becomes available, TIS-B will link to 28 participating terminal and 23 en route radars. When outside of radar coverage, the air-to-air exchange of ADS-B information could serve to plug many of the gaps left by the absence of TIS-B.

ADS-B targets appear with plenty of accompanying data useful for collision avoidance. For example, projected ground track, groundspeed, and altitude are presented next to the traffic symbol.

These make it easy for you to see when a conflicting airplane's track and altitude threaten to become factors along your flight path.

Flight information service-broadcast (FIS-B) weather information is the third datalink element of ADS-B. This lets pilots call up text and Nexrad ground-based weather radar imagery.

ADS-B doesn't use Mode S to shuttle its information about. All three information pipelines — ADS-B, TIS-B, and FIS-B — use what are called Universal Access Transceivers (UATs). UATs were designed by Mitre Corporation's Center for Advanced Aviation Systems Development (CAASD) under an FAA grant. They use the 978 MHz frequency, a frequency in the distance measuring equipment (DME) band that's capable of moving up to four times as much data approximately four times as fast as current datalink methods. It has to be that fast to handle all three of ADS-B's datalink services. UAT receivers are projected to cost approximately $5,000.

The traffic and weather information is free. Well, not exactly. American taxpayers foot the bill. There are no subscription fees or agreements to sign.

ADS-B is emerging from the research and development phase. The Capstone program has been expanded to validate the concept further, and more than 22 new ground stations should be operational along the U.S. East Coast by the end of 2004. AOPA has two airplanes equipped with Capstone gear and has been involved in the testing for several years. Approximately 100 UAT transceivers have been sold to operators of aircraft flying in this area, as well as Arizona, so the program continues to move forward.

The decision to implement ADS-B nationally is currently set to take place in the December 2004- to January-2005 time frame. — Thomas A. Horne


AirCell Guardian 1000/FlightGuardian

While most pilots think of AirCell as being the company that pioneered cellular telephone service for business aircraft, the innovative Colorado company also offers a phone and datalink solution for those of us here below the flight levels.

I installed AirCell's Guardian 1000 telephone in my Beechcraft Bonanza two years ago thinking I would use it only as a data link. After all, being able to phone home from the air seemed like a luxury I could do without. However, I've been pleasantly surprised by the convenience of such capabilities. Running late? Call ahead and let those on the ground know where you are and when you'll be there. Need to change your plans en route because of weather? Call ahead and check on hotel rooms, how late the FBO will be open, and the availability of a rental car. It's also handy for calling AWOS/ASOS or ATIS sites to find out the weather ahead. I've used it for all of the above.

The panel-mount Guardian 1000 ties into any number of modern audio panels so that the pilot, copilot, or both can talk on the phone through the headsets. If ATC calls, you simply punch the push-to-talk button to respond and go back to the conversation. The party on the phone doesn't hear the ATC transmissions.

AirCell says it has coverage above 5,000 feet msl over most of the country. We've found that the service works well in a single-engine piston airplane from the mid-Atlantic states through the Southeast. There are holes in the coverage when even as high as 9,000 feet over parts of the Great Lakes states. It's also difficult to get a signal over the metropolitan areas from Philadelphia through Boston. We have not flown it in other parts of the country.

Besides voice, the AirCell system also can be used for data. Control Vision has a kit to use the AirCell system to get data into its AnywhereWx system ( see page 78). If you don't need the moving-map functionality from Control Vision, another choice is to use AirCell's FlightGuardian software.

To use it, you establish a data account with AirCell and install the FlightGuardian software on either your PocketPC-based personal digital assistant or a portable computer. Connect the computer via one wire to a port on your panel, choose the weather products you want, hit the Dnld button on the computer, and away you go. Users have a choice of Nexrad images, Surface charts, or 12- or 24-hour Prog charts, although I'm not sure how useful a 24-hour Prog is to your current flight. In any case, you can download data for either the entire country, or specifically for the regions of interest to you. The regional choices are made by touching areas on a map depiction.

Once you've made your selection, the phone automatically dials out to DTC DUATS, brings back the images, and disconnects the phone. You can then view the individual images. Pushing the thumb button on the PDA allows you to zoom in and out. The rocker button allows you to pan left/right, up/down. The maps are not presented relative to your route, so you have to know about where you are in the region in order to orient the information to your position.

At least for those flying at lower altitudes, coverage isn't as robust as some of the satellite datalinks, but AirCell provides a weather datalink solution to those who find the phone itself useful.

Price: Guardian 1000 telephone, $3,495; FlightGuardian software, $95; telephone charges, minimum of $50 a month, which includes 20 minutes of service.
Contact: AirCell, 888/328-0200; www.aircell.com. — Thomas B. Haines


Arnav WeatherView

Arnav Systems of Puyallup, Washington, now makes WeatherLink in-flight weather available to Cirrus SR20 and 22 owners whose aircraft use the Arnav ICDS2000 multifunction display and are equipped with RCOM-100 satellite datalink hardware. Weather products retrieved from the Arnav Network Operation Center include Nexrad radar, METAR graphics and text, graphical icing, freezing levels, turbulence, and convective information. The improved weather data is supplied by Meteorlogix, which also supplies Nexrad, text weather, satellite photos, and proprietary graphics to Echo Flight, Control Vision, and ARINC as well as AOPA Online.

Price: RCOM-100 satellite transceiver, $6,995; service plans from $39.99 per month plus $2 per weather request and 99 cents per Globalstar satellite telephone connection.
Contact: 253/848-6060; www.sagemavionics.comAlton K. Marsh


Avidyne FlightMax EX500

Avidyne chose a different approach with its datalinked weather solution, available in the FlightMax EX500 multifunction display or in the FlightMax Entegra integrated flight deck (currently in Lancair and Diamond aircraft Entegra installations). Rather than delivering weather for user-requested airports or regions, or based on the airplane's current position, Avidyne's "narrowcasting" satellite receiver requests information from a radius (50 to 400 nm) along the current route, at a time interval set by the pilot (every 6 to 60 minutes). The result is a swath of data up to 800 nm around and along the route. A Datalink Setup page on the EX500 determines the range and frequency of the data pull. Nexrad images are overlaid on the multifunction display's primary map page along with graphical TFRs (temporary flight restrictions), airmets, and sigmets. Textual weather information, such as METARs, is listed with each reporting airport on the Trip page.

The system uses Orbcomm's satellite network, and Avidyne utilizes its own Network Operations Center to distill and send the data. An antenna coupler, the DC50, allows the EX500 to access the network through a multi-mode antenna (coupling the datalink with either a com or GPS/com antenna), saving on installation costs and trimming the hardware farm on the airplane's fuselage.

Price: The datalink receiver is standard in the $8,995 price for the EX500 MFD; datalink service costs $99 for registration, then 9 cents per message. The DC50 datalink receiver is available for $495 when purchased with the EX500.
Contact: 800/284-3963; www.avidyne.comJulie K. Boatman


Control Vision's AnywhereWx

An alternative for pilots who like portability (and their personal digital assistants) is Control Vision's AnywhereWx, an option for its AnywhereMap moving-map software for PDAs. AnywhereWx uses either an AirCell in-flight telephone or a satellite telephone linking it to the GlobalStar satellite network. The system delivers METARs, Nexrad images, and cloud-cover imagery from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) GOES-8 satellite from Meteorlogix. These graphics are displayed on the primary map page, overlaid on the base map showing the aircraft's current position and route.

Data delivery is obtained through request/reply, and typical downloads take a minute or less to complete. Pilots can request data from any location, whether it's a current position, destination, or diversion airport. A recent update to the Control Vision product allows the AnywhereMap moving-map GPS program to utilize Control Vision's Tracker Blue GPS, a wireless GPS device that eliminates part of the wire mess that can accompany temporary cockpit PDA installations.

Price: $2,145 includes Compaq iPaq 5550, AnywhereWx software, GlobalStar tri-mode satellite phone, Garmin GPS 35 GPS and antenna, yoke mount, and bag; datalink service through GlobalStar begins at $25 monthly plus $1.29 a minute; AnywhereWx service is $72 annually. The Tracker Blue GPS retails for $399.
Contact: 620/231-6647; www.controlvision.comJulie K. Boatman


Echo Flight

Echo Flight is the senior member of the datalinked-weather club, having supplied in-flight weather since 1998. It delivers Nexrad graphics, and graphical and textual METARs via Orbcomm's satellite network, downloaded to its proprietary portable hardware, called Flight Cheetah. The Flight Cheetah hardware has evolved from a tablet-size screen and separate keyboard to a portable unit that can be installed on a panel or yoke mount. Available in several versions, the latest is the FL 250, which features a bright 5.7-inch-diagonal display, WAAS-enabled GPS, datalink receiver, and portable hard drive. The FL 270 offers the same features with a 6.4-inch screen.

Traditionally, Echo Flight subscribers downloaded weather information on a request/reply basis, but in spring 2003 Echo Flight announced automatic weather delivery, which downloads data in a constant stream, eliminating the need to make a call to the provider every time the pilot wants a weather update. The company recently added LandSat imagery to its database, enabling pilots in IFR or night conditions to view terrain and surface detail to a 15-meter resolution. Echo Flight offers in-flight e-mail and position reporting service in addition to weather. Echo Flight is also the weather provider to Garmin's GDL 49 STC'ed datalink hardware.

Price: Several plans are available starting at $9.95 per month plus $1 for each message, with unlimited service for $55 a month; FL 250 hardware/software package is $5,295, with the FL 270 for $5,695.
Contact: 888/948-9657; www.echoflight.comJulie K. Boatman


Garmin GDL 49

Garmin offers in-flight weather using its Garmin GDL 49 satellite datalink transceiver that receives Echo Flight's weather service and displays it on Garmin's 400- and 500-series panel-mount moving-map GPS/nav/com radios. A subscription to the weather service is purchased separately from Echo Flight. In addition, Garmin AT offers WSI weather on its MX20 display. Contact WSI for pricing.

Price: $3,495 for GDL 49.
Contact: 913/397-8200; www.garmin.com; www.wsi.comAlton K. Marsh


Honeywell Bendix/King's Wingman Service

Honeywell Bendix/King has been selling its very popular IHAS (integrated hazard avoidance system) hardware and software for more than three years, and some 5,000 of these units are now in service. The idea behind the IHAS concept is to merge navigation, weather, terrain, and traffic information in a single display unit. The company offers three such units: a VFR-only box called the KMD 250, an IFR-certified unit called the KMD 550, and a high-end IFR unit with an interface for airborne weather radar called the KMD 850.

The datalink component of the IHAS serves the weather and traffic-alert features. With the addition of Bendix/King's KDR 510 datalink receiver, aircraft can display textual weather products such as METARs, TAFs, pireps, sigmets, and airmets. As for weather graphics, Nexrad ground-based weather radar imagery with 4-km resolution is available, as are animated Nexrad imagery and graphically depicted METARs, sigmets, and airmets. Soon to come is Nexrad imagery with precipitation cell echo-top information. All of this information comes via a joint FAA-industry program called flight information services-broadcast (FIS-B). Other avionics manufacturers also make use of FIS-B, and it's one of the major recent advances in in-flight weather awareness.

The KDR 510 scans a ground-based network of transmitters to gather the FIS-B data. Using the VHF datalink (VDL) mode 2 frequency, these transmitters continuously broadcast at a rate of 31.5 kbps (kilobytes per second). The KDR 510's antenna picks up the information, and the pilot can call up and view the requested products on the display screens with just a few keystrokes. This is not a request/reply system; the information is always broadcast in the background. This means there is little delay between making a selection from the menu and seeing it on the screen.

The main drawback of a terrestrially based broadcast system has to do with line-of-sight limitations. For good, uninterrupted signal reception you may have to climb to altitude. For example, around some sites in the northeastern United States, reliable signals can't be received until you reach 4,000 to 5,000 feet. In some mountainous areas of the western United States, terrain-blocked signals mean that much higher altitudes are required for good reception.

Bendix/King has been doing a good job plugging the holes in its coverage by adding more ground stations. Today, the coverage is much, much more extensive than just a year ago.

Digital datalink signals also provide traffic information to IHAS displays, using the traffic information system (TIS) established under another FAA-industry agreement used by several avionics manufacturers. Bendix/King's setup uses its KT 73 Mode S transponder. The KT 73 picks up ATC radar signals and sends them to the cockpit, where pilots can see the same targets as controllers. The good news: Better traffic awareness. The bad news: Only certain approach-control radar facilities provide these broadcasts. In the en route phase of flight, TIS often isn't available.

More sophisticated products — such as on-board active air traffic surveillance, and enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS) capabilities — also can be added to an IHAS installation. But in many respects it's the datalink services that provide the most bang for the buck.

Price: KDR 510 datalink receiver, $5,730 ($3,690 when paired with the KMD 250); first three months of datalink weather are free under the "Wingman" roster of services, after that $49.90 per month for graphical weather products; textual weather products remain free; KT 73 Mode S transponder, $5,220.
Contact: 877/712-2386 or 913/712-2613; www.bendixking.comThomas A. Horne


TIS

The FAA broadcasts the equivalent of ground-based radar displays to aircraft flying within 55 nm of more than 110 radar installations under its traffic information service (TIS). The information is the same as that included in VFR traffic advisories normally given by voice. All you need to receive it is a Mode S-capable transponder, and at the moment there are only three of those available to light general aviation aircraft: the Garmin GTX 330 and GTX 330D, and the Bendix/King KT 73. Oh, yes. To view the information you also need a display, like the Garmin AT MX20, the Garmin GNS 500- and 400-series GPS/nav/com units, the Avidyne FlightMax EX5000 and EX500 multifunction displays, or the Bendix/King KMD 250, 550, or 850 displays. The Bendix/King TIS data must be displayed on the Bendix/King displays, which only show Bendix/King TIS data — they will not display Garmin TIS data.

Price: Garmin GTX 330, $4,995; Garmin GTX 330D, $9,995; Bendix/King KT 73 $5,220.
Contact: www.garmin.com; www.bendixking.comAlton K. Marsh


WSI InFlight

One of the biggest powerhouses in the aviation weather game, WSI Corporation, uses satellite-broadcast technology to deliver the basic aviation weather products, plus some impressive radar imagery. WSI's newest service — called WSI InFlight — is compatible with a variety of panel-mount and portable display units.

Garmin AT's MX20 multifunction display (MFD) is one such panel-mount unit, and so are L-3 Avionics' iLinc, Chelton's FlightLogic EFIS (electronic flight information system), and Universal Avionics' UCD MFD. Portable displays compatible with WSI InFlight include Advanced Data Research's FG-3600 electronic flight bag (EFB); CMC Electronics' CT-1000 EFB; Fujitsu tablet computers and PC laptops; and virtually every handheld pocket PC and personal digital assistant (PDA) capable of running Windows 98 and its successor versions. InFlight provides graphical and textual METARs, TAFs, sigmets, and airmets, and in this regard its services are very much like those offered by competing in-flight digital-datalink weather sources. Some new enhancements, such as pireps and winds aloft, will soon be available to owners of MX20 MFDs; they're already provided as part of the EFB service packages.

WSI's strong suit is its Nexrad radar graphics, and it's here that InFlight stands head and shoulders above the rest. The imagery comes in 2-km re-solution, which makes for superior radar signature interpretation, and the imagery is rebroadcast at 5-minute intervals. Animated radar imagery is also available, and so is a view that portrays precipitation cell echo tops and movement — a really invaluable resource in the thunderstorm season. WSI's goal in providing these levels of service is to equal what would be portrayed on a high-quality on-board weather radar. In truth, InFlight goes any on-board radar one better: There are up to five levels of precipitation shading; purple signatures for mixed precipitation and blue signatures for snow and ice; and none of the radar attenuation effects that plague airborne weather radar. Attenuation is a blocking of radar energy caused by heavy precipitation. This blocking can hide dangerous cells from an airborne weather radar's view. Datalinked radar imagery comes from a mosaic of ground-based Doppler weather radars, and because of its signal strength and narrow beam is free of attenuation effects.

Price: InFlight pricing reflects a range of service packages. Hardware for the AV200 unit — which is for panel-mount displays — runs $4,995. Portable displays use WSI's AV100 $3,495 system package. These prices include datalink receivers, software, and antennas. Service packages run from $999 per year for the top-of-the-line "corporate" service to $199.99 per year and $19.95 per day for the "Pay 2 Fly" service aimed at occasional VFR-only pilots. All services include the Nexrad radar imagery. TFR and Canadian data are available as add-ons for all service packages save the corporate at $100 and $200 per year, respectively.
Contact: 978/983-6300; www.wsi.comThomas A. Horne


WxWorx

Pilots and an increasing number of large general aviation manufacturing companies have turned to WxWorx in Huntsville, Alabama, for in-flight aviation weather that is broadcast over a channel of XM Satellite Radio.

You can have it in certified and uncertified iterations. WxWorx now offers an uncertified portable package starting at $659. The weather subscription is purchased directly from XM Satellite Radio. There is also a certified receiver built by Heads Up Technologies and offered through your local avionics dealer. Use it by plugging your computer into a panel receptacle.

The software is loaded on a laptop, which displays the downloaded weather. Destination Direct moving-map and flight-planning software will offer WxWorx designed to run with its products in April. WxWorx is also available on these electronic flight bags: Paperless Cockpit, 901/751-2687; AirGator's NavAirWx which makes WxWorx available on both a personal digital assistant (PDA) and an electronic flight bag, 914/666-5656; Flight Deck Resources, 949/679-9900; and Approach View, 877/678-1602 or 713/552-1602. Soon it will be available on the TeleType GPS PDA unit and the Palm OS-based display from Hangar B-17.

Rockwell Collins will offer WxWorx on new and retrofit installations of its Pro Line 21 avionics: The Cessna CJ3 will be the launch aircraft for the new service. Garmin plans to include WxWorx on the G1000 integrated avionics display planned for several new Diamond and Cessna aircraft and is building its own receivers — the GDL 69 that will receive WxWorx and the GDL 69A that will receive WxWorx and XM's digital radio.

Price: WxWorx pricing is $659 for the Basic package and $860 for Premium with topography and GPS connectivity; XM Radio weather subscription, $49 per month plus one-time $75 activation fee; Heads Up Technologies receiver, $3,975. Cessna and Diamond will include display and receiver equipment costs in the price of their aircraft.
Contact: 321/751-9202; www.wxworx.comAlton K. Marsh