Waypoints: MEMS and more to the rescue

From the creative minds at Aspen

December 1, 2012

Tom Haines

The touch of a button on the iPad beams the complex flight plan to the Aspen Avionics multifunction display. A touch of a button then sends it to the Garmin GNS 430 and we are ready to lift off in the Cirrus for an early morning flight out of Albuquerque’s Double Eagle II Airport. The process saves several minutes of complex button pushes and knob turns on the 430 and allows the iPad’s electronic flight bag to stay in sync with the panel-mount navigator.

Aspen’s Connected Panel system is a Wi-Fi conduit that allows two-way communication between handheld devices and panel-mount systems. Connected Panel’s open architecture encourages other companies to create new ways to leverage information bound up inside the panel-mount systems. In essence it breaks down the data wall between the panel and the rest of the pilot’s life. Now you can easily transport information between the outside world and the cockpit. Add new data to the panel, such as a flight plan; or take data away for analysis, such as engine performance information or flight times.

While Connected Panel is the latest clever concept from Aspen, it is far from the first. The innovative company has broken down barriers before, most notably with its line of solid-state displays meant to replace all or parts of the traditional mechanical flight instruments. And while the displays and their unique form factor are revolutionary, the real news is inside, where Aspen leveraged off-the-shelf accelerometers found in automotive stability systems and cell phones to create attitude heading reference systems at a size and cost that is a fraction of what had traditionally been available in aviation. Rather than ring-laser gyros or complex and heavy inertial reference systems costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, Aspen provides similar performance for thousands of dollars, allowing multiple layers of redundancy for still a fraction of the cost of the others.

As Aspen President John Uczekaj (U-ze-k-eye) explained during one of my recent visits to the Albuquerque-based company, the AHRS is completely comfortable with roll rates of as much as 400 degrees per second, a force that would easily tumble your run-of-the-mill mechanical gyro. Because of its aerobatic comfort, the Aspen systems have become favorites of airshow pilots.

At the heart of the Aspen AHRS are MEMS, microelectromechanical systems. On a MEMS chip, the movement of extremely fine silicon fibers during acceleration causes a change in electric current that can be measured. Air data computer information and a GPS position help complete the attitude and reference information needed to accurately depict aircraft position in space. In Aspen’s case a remote sensor module (RSM), which includes a magnetometer and a GPS sensor, rounds out the data needed for position.

In addition to a backup battery in its panel-mount displays, Aspen can provide more redundancy through its RSM-mounted GPS. If the ship’s main source of GPS position is lost—say, from a failure of an IFR navigator, such as the GNS 430—a pilot can continue on his current flight plan with the RSM GPS providing guidance. With such a failure, the pilot cannot change the flight plan, which is imported from the navigator to the Aspen systems—at least for now. With the introduction of the Connected Panel system, one may in the future be able to update the flight plan information via a handheld system, allowing even greater redundancy and flexibility.

Founded only eight years ago, Aspen has had a profound impact in general aviation, mostly because of its uniquely collaborative approach to working with other companies. While many suppliers purposely make it difficult for other brands to integrate with their proprietary components, Aspen goes out of its way to make its systems easily compatible with others. For example, it has worked closely with Avidyne to complete certification projects on the Avidyne DFC-90 flight control system, allowing customers using Aspen’s glass cockpits the ability to easily interface with the new digital autopilot. Meanwhile, Avidyne and Aspen compete for the sales of display systems.

Aspen also has partnered with Bendix/King to refine the user interface and other parts of the Bendix/King KSN770 multifunction navigation and communication system.

Connected Panel is probably the most open system developed by Aspen. As Uczekaj puts it, Connected Panel “is like an ecosystem where people are invited to play.” Look for more such innovation to flow from the creative minds at Aspen.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org; follow on Twitter: tomhaines29.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.