The State of General Aviation

Avionics Market: The Age of Avionics

June 1, 2005

Avionics manufacturers revel in a panel-centric industry

No doubt about it, avionics are bringing more information to the average general aviation cockpit than ever before. While advances continue in airframes and powerplants, it's the avionics industry that has taken the lead with startling new capabilities. And the avionics industry's leaders are poised to bring pilots even more.

Greater computer processor speed and improved hardware technology have increased the amount of data and the complexity of programs that ever-smaller computers can work with — and in few places is this more evident than in the panel of a new GA airplane. Increased precision of data results from these advances in computing technology, allowing avionics manufacturers to move forward with a diversity of applications, from EFIS (electronic flight information system) to TAS (traffic advisory system) to TAWS (terrain awareness warning system), that are increasingly cost-effective and appropriate for light aircraft.

At the same time, government entities have jumped on the bandwagon, acknowledging the safety benefits of these technologies, and putting greater weight on them as the FAA grows comfortable with the level of reliability and precision that advances like WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) and ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) provide.

The question remains, however, in how well pilots can manage the information, use it judiciously, and leverage it to fly safely. But life is good in the avionics world. As Dan Barks, director of marketing for Honeywell Business, Regional, and General Aviation, puts it, "Business is good, the economy is back, safety gear is hot, and glass is gearing up."

Glass is the word

In a recent survey, 66 percent of AOPA members who own an aircraft choose GPS as their preferred electronic navigation system.

The glass cockpit, which we see now in every row of the static displays at major airshows, has its roots in the EFIS of business jets that have developed over the past two decades. But putting that sophisticated a technology into the cockpit of a light airplane has been a bold step: Learning to use and interpret traditional EFIS and flight management systems (FMS) was done in the simulators at places like FlightSafety International, and in airline training programs — not on the fly in a standard two-hour aircraft checkout. And because the systems that are now offered by virtually every light-aircraft original equipment manufacturer (OEM) rival the legacy business jet systems in sophistication and integration, we can't look at the rocketing rise of glass without taking a hard look at how we're going to train pilots to use the equipment wisely. And manufacturers are finding out quickly that training plays a large role in how readily a given system is accepted. If pilots don't know how to use the system — and more important, feel comfortable using the system — they won't rent or buy the airplane in which it's installed.

But first adopters — the pilots hungry for the latest panels and the manufacturers who are producing such panels — are out there in force, as the movement to glass took on critical impetus two years ago when Avidyne Corporation introduced its primary flight display (PFD) into the Cirrus SR series. Even these leaders acknowledge the unusually rapid expansion of glass into light personal aircraft. "This is one of the fastest major transitions that the aviation industry has accepted," says Dan Schwinn, president of Avidyne. "I thought it would take north of five years."

"We're looking down the food chain and up the food chain" for implementation of glass, says Gary Kelley, director of sales and marketing for Garmin International, noting the expectation that PFD and MFD (multifunction display) technology has broad application in all classes of aircraft.

"This is one of the fastest major transitions that the aviation industry has accepted," says Dan Schwinn, president of Avidyne. "I thought it would take north of five years."

Chelton Flight Systems underlines that statement — currently it's the only manufacturer to offer a retrofit EFIS to the light-production-aircraft market, and its approved model list for its FlightLogic EFIS runs "from [Cessna] 172s to [Citation] 501s," says Chelton Flight Systems President Gordon Pratt. The winner of AOPA's Commander Countdown Rockwell Commander 112-A will fly behind a FlightLogic system. The company has also introduced glass to the light-helicopter fleet. "Our average customer has a King Air. This will drop to a Baron, or a 210," says Pratt, "as we increase volume and the cost comes down." He alludes to something in the next year that will likely make this happen — perhaps the increasingly widespread industrial use of glass displays. "As automobiles have more small navigation displays, it brings the cost down and that will make a big difference," says Pratt. "Our glass display is the most expensive part."

And others agree. "Some things are definitely tied to the consumer market," says Barks, of Honeywell. "If you take a laptop outside, you can't see the screen, but cars have a similar environment to that of an airplane — the screens are brighter."

Kelley identifies a similar force as one of Garmin's key strengths — its ability to use common parts for its GPS equipment regardless of the market for the end product, as its consumer GPS division produces far more units than its aviation division.

"It's vision," says Chelton Flight Systems President Gordon Pratt. "We developed FlightLogic] in our garage, my partner and I originally designed it for the experimental market."

This is important because right now the cost of the retrofit system keeps it from consideration by a lot of pilots. "Right now there's a pretty big disparity between the new and the retrofit market," says Avidyne's Schwinn. The price difference between a new airplane with glass and a new airplane without glass is about $25,000 to $40,000 — only a fraction of the cost of the airplane. But that number jumps to roughly $70,000 for a retrofit system, which can rival an owner's total investment in a used airplane.

It's also the advent of low-cost? ADAHRS (air data attitude and heading reference system) that has made PFDs possible in light aircraft to begin with. Air data computers and AHRS (attitude heading and reference systems) have been helping to guide commercial aircraft for more than a decade — but at a cost prohibitive to less expensive aircraft. Avidyne merged with Orion Dynamics and produced its own low-cost ADAHRS, which made possible the company's FlightMax Entegra PFD. Similarly, Chelton's partnership with Crossbow, a manufacturer of MEMS (microelectronic mechanical sensors) for automobiles, allowed it to develop the FlightLogic EFIS and offer it for a price less than the AHRS alone on the big jets.

"Business is good, the economy is back, safety gear is hot, and glass is gearing up," says Dan Barks, director of marketing for Honeywell Business, Regional, and General Aviation.

And, like the PC market, at the same time we see less cost, we will also see more features. "We have considerable capabilities to move up to HITS [highway in the sky] when we choose," says Kelley, of Garmin. "The G1000 [Gar-min's integrated flight deck, including MFD and PFD] is designed to be an adaptive, flexible platform and will serve for many years to come."

Chelton already offers HITS but is looking at how best to incorporate better terrain modeling. In particular, the company is looking forward to when the space shuttle's recent terrain mapping data is published. Pratt says there are two hurdles to jump. Validating the data leads to greater confidence in it; that's step one. And the ability to display that vetted data at a high enough resolution — but maintain a real-time refresh rate on the screen — that's step two.

The traditional "six-pack" of instruments will be around for a while, there is no doubt. Even if prices fall on EFIS as some manufacturers predict, there will be plenty of pilots who don't see the need for the investment — either because they don't fly IFR or they find that the old scan still suits them fine, thank you. And like aficionados of classic cars, there will always be a contingent of pilots and owners who keep traditional panels flying, whether for aesthetics, a statement of skill, or appreciation for our rich aviation history.

But progress in the panel is an accelerating force these days. "It's vision," says Pratt, of Chelton. "We developed [FlightLogic] in our garage, my partner and I originally designed it for the experimental market." Less than a decade later, that glass is on virtually every flight line in the country.

Datalink — the new GPS

If datalink is the new GPS, then datalink weather is the direct-to function.

Weather information (graphical and textual weather products) delivered via datalink is quickly becoming a favorite tool of general aviation pilots. Anyone who has tried to fly cross-country (or even make it back to the airport from the local practice area on some summer days) can appreciate the utility of having a relatively recent snapshot of the local Nexrad returns on a screen in the cockpit. Whether that screen is in the panel, on a multifunction display, or strapped to the yoke on a personal digital assistant (PDA), the decision-making information you can get from the data is crystal clear.

Datalink came to the handheld market a little more quickly than to panel-mounts — simply because it's easier to bring the uncertified product into the cockpit. And the lure of graphics in the cockpit coupled with a reasonable cost to equip with a basic system has driven pilots to make the purchase of a datalink system their first major hardware buy since they invested in a handheld com or GPS.

In the coming years, perhaps pilots who purchase some form of datalink receiver will use it, the majority of the time, only to acquire weather — much like the pilots who put a panel-mount GPS in the airplane only to fly direct-to. Nothing wrong with that.

"In a little more than two years, we've sold 2,000 units," says Paul Devlin, marketing programs manager for WSI, which produces both portable and panel-mount datalink solutions. "It's really going to make it easier to fly," says Devlin, "and the more you use an airplane, the less it costs per hour to operate."

Kelley also counts weather as a vital part of his company's programs to continue to bring innovation to the cockpit. Several avionics manufacturers have agreements with XM Radio, and XM's alliance with WxWorx, the weather information company that supplies the data to XM. But, in fact, datalinked satellite products from both the major satellite companies, XM and Sirius Satellite Radio, are available to the cockpit: Sirius has an agreement with PS Engineering, which includes satellite radio programming in its latest audio panel. However, it's interesting to note that, from the first, XM has poured its efforts in the very specialized aviation market into delivering weather — and has partnered with several companies to ensure pilots can pipe in its data stream from both portable and panel-mount means.

Barks, of Honeywell, sees some remaining hesitation in the market for datalink, because of the options available — portable or installed? Satellite or ground-based delivery? "That will be the challenge — for the customers to decide what technology to bet on."

Still, to several people interviewed, weather data is only the tip of the iceberg. According to Avidyne's Schwinn, datalink weather, for all its utility, is simply a first point of contact for pilots and datalink, and the possibilities for datalink range far beyond pumping down a few electrons — even if they make pretty pictures on the screen. "We're going to try to start telling people that it's not the only thing, but a baseline expectation," says Schwinn.

All com, all the time

One key product for Avidyne is the Flight Center, which it recently launched for its EX500 and EX5000 multifunction displays. It offers flight tracking and messaging, and has garnered a positive reaction, according to Schwinn. But the next big frontier is in the com side of the radio. Both Avidyne and Honeywell in particular have invested a lot of research into digital voice communications — VHF digital datalink (VDL Mode 3) — the com platform for the future. Though it requires the FAA to put in the infrastructure, and build in backwards compatibility for aircraft with legacy radios, VDL offers four digital com channels for each analog frequency, effectively quadrupling system capacity and offering more effective, nonblocking access to voice and data transmission. Schwinn expects VDL to "come off the rails" soon. Barks also notes that Honeywell's APEX integrated flight deck will be VDL "updateable" as well.

More data streams

In the meantime, the FAA in partnership with the industry has poured its efforts into TIS and FIS (traffic information system and flight information system) and ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast). While TIS makes use of Mode S transponders (which deliver aircraft information along with position and altitude) to deliver traffic information, ADS-B uses multifunction display technology and an airborne transceiver, UAT (universal access transceiver), to uplink and show traffic data — both between aircraft (position reports, velocity vectors, and aircraft intentions) and TIS and FIS data from the ground. Both offer a less expensive way for pilots to equip to a level of situational awareness they would not have otherwise — because they use information that's piped into the ether by the FAA.

TIS-capable Mode S transponders give pilots access to traffic information from air traffic control radar. If an aircraft has an actively interrogated transponder within range of one of the 112 ATC radar installations in the TIS network, that aircraft's position information is transmitted via datalink to any TIS-compatible transponder in the radar's service area. The information is then displayed either on the transponder itself or on a multifunction display. ADS-B ups the ante by allowing aircraft to share data independent of ATC or a ground-based facility.

The FIS pumps relevant safety-of-flight data (including weather graphics and text, notams, and ATC information) to an MFD. The ground-based network of stations delivering FIS data is growing and AOPA has advocated for this cost-effective way for pilots to get in touch with more data. And manufacturers are supplying the necessary hardware for aircraft owners to equip.

WAAS — the next level

While the basic GPS signal has been available to civilian pilots for roughly a decade, WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) incorporates 25 reference stations on the ground that listen to the satellite transmissions from the 24 satellites in the primary GPS constellation, and two master stations whose computers fix any errors. Then three ground stations deliver a corrected signal to two geostationary satellites, which send the signal to any WAAS-capable receiver, enhancing the GPS position accuracy.

The first WAAS-enabled GPS receivers hit the handheld market a couple of years ago, but it wasn't until last fall when the first panel-mount unit to be certified for LPV approaches, the Garmin GNS 480, was blessed that WAAS caught the average pilot's attention. Each of the manufacturers contacted for this story noted plans for integrating WAAS into current and future products. "We continue to work on it for the GNS 430 and 530," says Kelley. "We encourage the expansion of LPVs." There's no argument that more precise approaches to more airports are a very good thing.

Honeywell plans a trade-in program for its newest WAAS GPS receivers when they are available, with APEX being the first of its products to market with WAAS capability. "We see WAAS as a superstar in the coming years," says Barks.

More traffic

Right now, the general aviation fleet is holding steady. But the influx of very-light jets promises to increase traffic just as the addition of regional jets did as they entered commercial service.?More airplanes in the skies are a good thing for the industry, but can increase the workload and risk for the typical single-pilot GA aircraft.

While the datalinked TIS partially answers the traffic question by letting the pilot know what ATC knows, traffic advisory and avoidance systems create a virtual shell around an airplane. "I think datalink is an excellent technology for 'passive' information, like weather — and a good thing for making a long-term decision," says Bruce Bunevich, vice president of sales and marketing for Ryan International. "What's exclusive about flying is that we're operating in real time. Traffic should be provided in real time so pilots can make decisions."

He sees the avionics industry as a whole "in its adolescence, like the PC industry in 1985 — all the development, all the technologies offering a huge choice to the pilot consumer." To that end, Bunevich has identified the great partnerships that Ryan has built with its competitors, such as Honeywell and L-3, and its partnerships with other avionics companies like Garmin.

Outside of the traffic picture, this healthy marketplace plays a key role in ensuring that pilots have choices in how to make all this information available to them.

Terrain! Terrain!

But not all is sponge cake and sunshine in the high school of the avionics world. One recent scuffle was ironed out in court: the suit brought on Sandel Avionics by Honeywell over the respective companies' terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS). The deadline for the FAA mandate that requires all turbine-equipped airplanes with six seats or more to be equipped with TAWS has passed, and Sandel was first to market with its cost-effective solution, the ST3400, certified in May 2002. Honeywell filed the suit shortly thereafter. In January, a judge ruled that Sandel had not infringed upon any of Honeywell's TAWS patents.

Regardless of the court contests, no one can argue that TAWS — the trickle-down brother to enhanced ground proximity warning systems (EGPWS) — is a big benefit to the GA pilot who can afford to equip. And OEMs are making it easier to bring all flavors of terrain awareness into the light-aircraft cockpit: In July 2004 Cirrus announced it would offer Honeywell's EGPWS in its SR-series airplanes. There's a good reason behind the excitement, says Barks: "Ground prox has statistically the ability to save lives."

Terrain is also big in base maps for multifunction displays, as Pratt, of Chelton, noted previously. "Terrain is so compelling that pilots may abandon an instrument approach for the terrain," he says, so manufacturers must keep this in mind as they develop synthetic vision on PFDs. While it's tough to display weather over a detailed terrain map on an MFD (there are a lot of colors in the rainbow, but pilots tend to be a conservative lot when it comes to artistic impressions in the cockpit), the providers who offer both weather and terrain hope to keep pilots out of the cumulo-rocks as well as the geological ones.

Portable world

Terrain was the big news last year in the portable world as well, when Garmin debuted its GPSMap 296. "We want to be a full-line supplier," says Kelley. Other manufacturers of portable devices continue to diversify their product offerings in similar fashion.

Tom Reed, vice president of operations for Control Vision, puts it this way: "This is the year of more than just handheld GPS." The portable-MFD market is a definite growth area, but the addition of datalink weather, backup attitude information, and airport directory details has taken portables to a new level that truly complements any panel-mount avionics installed in an airplane. "The whole idea of datalink weather is no longer a novelty — or even a luxury. Then, when you put it into a less-than-$3,000 wrapper...." says Reed.

The detailed color screen is an eye-catching draw, whether it belongs to a PDA, an electronic flight bag or tablet PC, or a dedicated handheld GPS. In the past couple of years, other major producers of aviation handhelds (besides Garmin, which introduced the GPSMap 295 in July 1999), namely AirGator, Lowrance, and C-Map, have introduced big color displays that have sold reasonable amounts. And with pilots flocking to them like moths to a yellow, blue, and magenta flame, it means that many perfectly serviceable handhelds with black-and-white displays (and perhaps less-than-stunning refresh rates) are available on eBay. For prices that even the most financially challenged can afford.

Trickle-down economics

"At some point we'll see steer-by-wire and fly-by-wire for cars," says Barks. "And when that happens...." The price for large business-jet cockpit systems was high. But with components reaching lower cost and greater acceptance in the consumer market, it seems that aircraft manufacturers are doing more to match the airplane with what's in the panel rather than vice versa. Watch as the stars align for the avionics industry.


Technical Editor Julie K. Boatman flew her first GPS approaches as an instrument flight instructor, and she recently completed an FAA Industry Training Standards (FITS) instructor course on glass-cockpit aircraft. She has reported on the general aviation avionics industry since 2000.