Avionics: Aspen Synthetic Vision

Big world on a small screen: Aspen brings synthetic vision to Evolution PFD/MFD

August 1, 2011

Aspen Avionics is taking GPS-derived synthetic vision to the small screen.

Pilots can display GPS-derived synthetic vision in many different ways, like the full-screen mode shown here.

Aspen Avionics is taking GPS-derived synthetic vision to the small screen. Unlike competitors Garmin and Avidyne, which use bigger PFD screens to show colorful and highly accurate representations of terrain and traffic, Aspen is placing the same information on its relatively small Evolution PFD/MFD.

And the price for Aspen’s FAA-certified product isn’t as large, either. Aspen plans to charge $3,000 for the software update that adds synthetic vision, compared to $5,000 for the Garmin G500 and $10,000 for Avidyne’s planned Entegra R9 SVS.

“Our approach to offering synthetic vision is completely consistent with our approach to the rest of our avionics products and pricing,” said Brad Hayden, Aspen’s vice president for marketing. “Any time we offer new products or new features, we make sure they’re affordable, and then our price becomes a new standard for the industry.”

Aspen’s Evolution screen measures six inches (diagonal) and it comes in one-, two-, and three-screen packages. Rival Garmin’s G500 has two 6.5-inch screens, and Avidyne’s R9 uses a pair of 10.4-inch screens.

Big world on a small screen

Pilots can display GPS-derived synthetic vision in many different ways, or like the split-screen mode shown here.

Aspen gives pilots seemingly endless choices for displaying synthetic vision. The high-fidelity, GPS-derived representations of terrain, traffic, and obstacles can be shown on a PFD or MFD, full screen or split screen, and placed at the top or bottom of the split screen. Pilots can overlay an HSI on the synthetic vision screen, and open as many as three “windows” on a single PFD or MFD screen. Aspen says its high-resolution displays provide exceptionally sharp images that are easy to read, even in direct sunlight. And synthetic vision can be added as a software upgrade to any of the Evolution flight displays currently installed in more than 4,000 aircraft.

Although some avionics manufacturers and product reviewers dismissed GPS-derived synthetic vision as a gimmick when Garmin certified and helped popularize it in the G1000 avionics suite three years ago, the technology has steadily gained momentum. Pilots accustomed to flying with it say they miss it when it’s gone.

“[Synthetic vision] increases pilot situational awareness, and pilots who fly with it quickly come to regard it as essential,” Hayden said. “Having synthetic vision increases the comfort level for pilots. It’s rapidly becoming a staple in modern general aviation cockpits.”

Synthetic vision is becoming a defining element in modern cockpits.

Synthetic vision is becoming a defining element in modern GA cockpits, and many pilots have to regard it as essential.

Aspen’s Evolution PFD/MFD displays currently are FAA approved for use on more than 900 aircraft types, including pistons, turbines, and helicopters. The company expects to win FAA certification for synthetic vision in the third quarter and begin selling the software upgrades immediately thereafter.

Aspen will offer a version of its synthetic vision optimized for helicopters at an unspecified later date. The company also manufactures a horizontally mounted version of its Evolution display that is designed as a back-up instrument in glass-panel aircraft, and Aspen expects to offer synthetic vision on that product at some point as well.

“We’ll add features to our backup display—and synthetic vision is part of our roadmap for the future,” Hayden said.

The Evolution’s small size, light weight (about three pounds), AHRS that’s resistant to tumbling, and rapid screen update rate make it a popular choice for aerobatic aircraft manufacturers, owners, and pilots, and Aspen officials say adding synthetic vision won’t alter those characteristics.

Pilots flying behind one, two, or three Aspen screens will have the flexibility to view as much, or as little, information as they want.

One pilot's data is another pilot's clutter. Pilots flying behind one, two, or three Aspen screens will have the flexibility to view as much, or as little, information as they want.

The process of adding synthetic vision to Aspen displays is a simple matter of downloading data to an SD card and updating the software on each Evolution PFD/MFD. The entire process is meant to take minutes. Aircraft owners with multiple Aspen screens can display synthetic vision on up to three screens per aircraft without additional charge.

Aspen doesn’t offer “highway-in-the-sky” symbols on its displays. The rectangular boxes are designed to show a preprogrammed flight path with rectangular boxes that mark the desired cruise, descent, and approach path for the pilot to follow.

Aspen’s synthetic vision does include a green flight-path marker that shows at all times the trajectory the aircraft is following. It also offers the ability for pilots to adjust the field of view by making it wider or narrower. A broad field of view shows the full vista of terrain ahead while flying en route, and narrowing it can be useful on approach when the pilot wants to focus on the path directly ahead.

Aspen officials say the societal shift to watching movies and videos on mobile devices and extracting timely information from smartphones has validated the concept that relatively small screens can be the right-sized platform for synthetic vision.

“Our displays offer extremely high resolution,” Hayden said. “They’re very rich and clear and easy to read, and they greatly enhance pilot situational awareness.”

Email the author at dave.hirschman@aopa.org.

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.