Turbine Edition: Avionics Roundup

Moving into the mainstream

October 1, 2008

If you’ve made it this far, you probably know that sophisticated avionics are a defining characteristic of new turbine aircraft. What you may not know is that the capability gap that once separated the top-end systems from the entry-level models has, for the most part, disappeared. In fact, when new avionics features emerge these days—GPS-capable navigators are a great example—they often debut at the low end of the market.

Recent advancements just reaching smaller turbine aircraft include synthetic vision, integrated hazard avoidance, and flight management computers that are (gasp) easy to use. These new systems also have room to grow, and are expected to be compatible with two key satellite navigation developments now being deployed: Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B).

If there’s a flipside to this optimism, it’s that industry consolidation has thinned the avionics supplier herd to just a few corporate giants and niche players, limiting consumer choices. While system quality and performance are generally high, innovation is slow when compared with other electronics industries, as these manufacturers are understandably reticent to develop new capabilities that could—overnight—make their existing products seem dated. On the other hand, programmable units can often be upgraded through a simple software upgrade.

Bendix/King fell victim to this phenomenon after dominating general aviation avionics for decades, surrendering the field to Garmin and Avidyne—plucky upstarts unburdened by huge portfolios of aging “legacy” products. Bendix/King is still a significant player, but its identity has, to a great extent, been swallowed whole by its parent company, Honeywell. This company’s latest GA avionics offering, the Primus Apex system that recently debuted on the Pilatus PC-12, is branded Honeywell, perhaps in a bid to cash in on Big Red’s big-jet cachet. However, the company is now attempting to restore Bendix/King’s stately image with several new aftermarket cockpit displays.

While individual boxes offering targeted functionality are still available (the Sandel, Chelton, and Aspen displays come to mind) the big game is at the top end of the market. This has morphed into a battle between integrated systems that enable pilots to control (or at least monitor) their aircraft’s configuration and health to varying degrees. While some of these super systems can be added later, most join their host aircraft on the assembly line. The retrofit market for fully integrated systems is in its infancy, although aftermarket PFD/MFD display products are becoming common.

In terms of market share, there’s been a changing of the guard. Over the last three years, Garmin has come to dominate the integrated avionics market with its G1000 avionics suite usurping the (less integrated) Avidyne FlightMax Entegra as the platform of choice on a wide range of aircraft, from piston singles and twins, to turboprops and light jets. Garmin recently unveiled an optional synthetic vision system (SVS) product for the G1000, effectively forcing its rivals to scramble for their own SVS offerings or fall behind.

Avidyne, always keen to industry advances, subsequently introduced its SVS concept on a 15-inch display at EAA AirVentue in Oshkosh this year. The company isn’t saying when it will be available on its various displays. A third major player in this market, L-3 Communications Avionics Systems, just received FAA certification for its SmartDeck platform, and while no OEM (original equipment manufacturer) launch customer has yet been named, an early version is installed aboard the new SJ-50 Vision Cirrus jet, now in prototype form. It too plans to offer SVS as an additional capability to the integrated system.