Flying the Piaggio P180 Avanti twin-turboprop pusher from the front seat is a unique experience, but taking control of the same Avanti using a sidestick and a virtual windscreen from a side-facing seat in the rear of the cabin is a rare treat indeed.

The onboard remote-control capability is a new feature on the menu of research, development and testing capabilities that John Maris, founder, co-owner and test pilot of Montreal-based aMarinvent, is offering to avionics and systems designers in search of a low-risk and low-cost evaluation of novel avionics technologies.

Maris recently demonstrated the sidestick roll control and other features of the Avanti testbed to Aviation Week on a flight between Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport and the privately held company's operating base at the Saint-Hubert Airport, east of Montreal. The ground portion of the testbed is located at Marinvent's offices in nearby Saint Bruno, where the company's 15 employees develop hardware and software and maintain a fixed-based flight simulator. In Canada, the company does business as Marinvent, while in the U.S. it goes by Advanced Aerospace Solutions. Maris launched the company in 1983 and produced his first product in 1996—the electronic charting library known as JeppView. Boeing purchased JeppView in 1998.

Maris's Avanti is not your typical optionally piloted vehicle, an aircraft that can be flown from a ground station (through terrestrial or satellite link) or by a pilot in the cockpit. In his case, the ground station flies onboard the aircraft along with the researcher and Marinvent's engineers to find out in real time how the unmanned aircraft system (UAS) surrogate performs. “Because we fly the entire ground crew, in the aircraft, we have immense flexibility,” says Maris. “When they do something and the aircraft doesn't respond correctly, the whole team is in place and cay say, 'Why is it turning right?'”

The airborne test crew typically numbers seven, including a Marinvent test pilot in the left seat (the Avanti is certified for single-pilot operations), the researcher or “test subject” in the co-pilot's seat, and a test director, test engineer, data engineer as well as other engineers in the cabin with the compact test rack—an electronics cabinet topped with a video monitor and sidestick controller. During our flight, the monitor showed a synthetic 3D view of the external environment, developed using the X-Plane simulator, with the sidestick either controlling the Avanti's bank angle or pointing a simulated electro-optical/infrared turret. Maris incorporated the turret control for tests related to internal patents and the UAS control in anticipation of contracts with NASA, the FAA and others.

UAS work could also involve “swarm” concepts (many unmanned vehicles flying together), with the Avanti testing sense-and-avoid concepts in a virtual swarm. Maris says avionics for unmanned vehicles is a growing segment of Marinvent's business.

Maris sums up his offerings as “come-as-you-are” flight testing that reduces the risk of introducing new avionics equipment, applications or capabilities. It sounds simple, but the underlying infrastructure is complex. “You show up with your software and your hardware, but all the wiring, the data buses throughout the airplane, all of that is installed permanently,” Maris says. “With a simple patch cable, you have all the data in the plane.”

Typically, modifications that lead to flight testing require that an aircraft be transferred to the “experimental” airworthiness category, where restrictions can include a prohibition on instrument flights and crew-only flights. The Avanti operates in the “normal” category, meaning that Maris can fly the aircraft in any conditions for which it is certified, with no restrictions on who can fly in the aircraft. The normal categorization also allows Marinvent to easily convert the Avanti back to a corporate interior for charter flights through Canadian operator SkyService when Marinvent is not testing. The conversion, which takes about 1 hr., involves removing the workstation on the left forward side of the cabin and replacing the unit with a seat and a bar. Maris says the charter revenue helps offset the $500,000 a year it takes to keep the Avanti flying.

When a new project comes in, the Avanti generally becomes “experimental” for only one or two flights after a new system is installed, after which Marinvent has delegated authority from Transport Canada to issue a supplement type certificate, as long as the modification “doesn't cross some really radical boundaries,” Maris says.

Based on the Avanti's installed infrastructure, changes are generally minimal. Maris explains using an example of new flight management systems (FMS), upgrades Marinvent has previously certified multiple times for Esterline CMC.

“We'll take a wiring harness that matches that FMS to our standardized aircraft connectors, and we'll make sure that harness is assembled to FAA specifications,” says Maris. “We'll do electromagnetic interference and compatibility checks to make sure nothing will interfere with the aircraft. Then we'll do one flight to make sure there's no interference between this installation and the aircraft. Once we've done that, the partitioning ensures that [the new system] can't hurt our navigation or systems. Once that flight is done, we get a supplemental type certificate for the installation. The time it takes to approve something is a matter of a couple of weeks.”

Maris bought the 2001-built aircraft in 2003, later trading in a Piper Cheyenne twin-turboprop the company had used as its avionics testbed since the mid-1990s. While Maris could have upgraded to a jet, the Avanti was attractive because of its high fuel efficiency, long endurance, large cabin and single-pilot capability. With the pilot on the left, the right side is available to “mess up” with new concepts, says Maris. Along with a new Honeywell Epic control display system/retrofit (CDS/R) integrated avionics suite, the company installed the workstation in the cabin along with wi-fi capabilities and created firewalls, or partitioning, between the certified safety of flight systems and the experimental avionics.

Maris says there is “plenty of redundancy” in the Avanti, including five GPS, three inertial systems and three air data systems. Two recent additions include an ACSS TCAS 3000SP unit for automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) capability and an Inmarsat satellite communications system to pump data onto and off of the aircraft. In total, Maris says his investment in the aircraft is more than $10 million.

Before flying on the Avanti, avionics projects will typically undergo testing in Marinvent's portable hybrid simulator, a mix of flight and simulation components powered by a vertical stack of liquid-cooled processors. “The simulator is the first step into avionics integration, into prototyping, into development,” says simulation lead engineer Puthy Soupin. “It's easier to give the flight simulation environment to the piece of software or avionics first so we can debug early. As soon as it gets into the stage where we need to see it work in the real world, we put it in the workstation in the Avanti and display the project on the right side of the cockpit.”

Oftentimes, the new product comes to the aircraft as software on a USB stick that plugs into the workstation. “The biggest thing about the simulator is that it's there to replicate the aircraft,” says Maris. “If we have an experimental FMS, we drop it in [to the simulator], wire it to the patch panel, and the moment we have it working properly, there's a 99 percent chance it will work correctly in the plane.”

During our demonstration flight, Maris brought up the company's internally developed dynamic non-linear display on the co-pilot's side primary flight display (PFD), a product the company is beginning to market. The non-linear display expands the speed, altitude and heading readings around the aircraft's present state to accentuate changes, while compressing scales of the readings that are beyond the immediate values.

Marinvent's streamlined simulator-to-flight process proved to be of high value for a two-week NASA flight test in November, capping a two-year project that originally did not envision flight testing in such a short timeframe. The application, called Traffic Aware Planner (TAP), runs on an electronic flight bag in the cockpit and is targeted at the airline market. Along with ADS-B “in,” TAP uses broadband input for wind, airspace and weather information to help pilots search for optimized horizontal and vertical routing and give them the situational awareness to ask controllers for a route change.

The NASA flight tests generated positive input from a consultant pilot and eight airline pilots who evaluated the application.

“TAP was never envisioned to fly in the budget they had available,” says Maris. “But we came in and said we can get meaningful flight data in the budget you have. As a result, TAP was taken from a distributed computing environment to absolutely indistinguishable from in-service product in two years.

While simulations are valuable, flight tests will no doubt turn up the unanticipated. “When we took TAP for the first time into the air, there were a huge number of features, issues that we never would have anticipated,” says Maris. Those included the system trying to optimize flights starting and ending at the same airport, or “drastic turns” of 90 deg.

From a broader perspective, the TAP test shows the value of Marinvent's in-house infrastructure, which NASA will use again for upcoming tests. “What if NASA has a concept they want to try?” says Maris. “They show up here with a USB stick and we can fly it the next day. We can host some really strange stuff.”

Tap the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST to watch a video of Marinvent founder and test pilot John Maris describing the Avanti avionics testbed, or go to AviationWeek.com/video