Low-cost wireless avionics and tablets are changing the face of flight decks in the experimental aircraft market as builders seek to maximize capabilities and avoid obsolescence of installed equipment. The trend has caught the attention of established avionics makers that build equipment for the certified aircraft.
For an experimental aircraft, which does not require-certified avionics, a builder can replace the traditional “six-pack” instruments—for airspeed, altitude, attitude, heading, compass and vertical speed—and many other features with a single, battery-powered electronics unit not much bigger than a deck of cards.
“Some builders want two iPads on the panel,” says Ruben Leon, president of Levil Technology Corp., which builds attitude indicators for the certified and experimental aircraft markets. “Others say they're going to put three iPads on the panel. Another will want two Androids.”
Levil's latest product for the experimental market, the iLevil Plus, provides an attitude and heading reference system (AHRS) using microelectromechanical system (MEMS) gyros, single-band (978 MHz) Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) “in” with wide area augmentation system (WAAS) GPS for traffic and weather, airspeed via a connection to the pitot and static ports and integrated engine data.
All of the information is transmitted over Wi-Fi to an iPad or Android tablet that uses an off-the-shelf software application to interpret and display it. Given that the iLevil Plus can be mounted in a cradle under the windscreen, the device is also covered on its front face with solar cells to help with battery life.
Though an aircraft will likely need radios and a transponder and perhaps an autopilot, systems that Levil does not build, the bulk of a very capable cockpit can be had for the $2,000 cost of the iLevil Plus, in addition to the price of a tablet and software. The iLevil Plus is compatible with iPad and iPhone applications from nine vendors, including Bendix King's MyWingMan navigator. “We try to work with as many software packages as possible,” says Leon.
Leon notes he has not heard of interference problems in any of the 300 iLevil units now in operation. “Surprisingly, there's been no interference on the Wi-Fi link,” he says. “We haven't seen any problems on iPads on all the aircraft we've tested.” Leon says the Wi-Fi link can be password protected, but no one has asked for that.
Levil also builds MEMS-based AHRS for the certified market through gyro-maker RC Allen Instruments. “We built the AHRS [for RC Allen], starting with certified instruments first,” says Leon. “Then we decided to market [our own AHRS] that communicates with the iPad.” He says Levil has about 3,000 AHRS installed in RC Allen products to date.
Competitor Appareo is selling a similar unit, called Stratus, starting at $900. Stratus is equipped with dual-band (978 MHz and 1090 MHz) ADS-B, WAAS GPS and AHRS, connecting exclusively to Apple devices over a Wi-Fi link. Stratus does not integrate air data or engine instrumentation, and it works exclusively with ForeFlight's navigator application for the iPad and iPhone.
Though requiring the operator to use Apple products or ForeFlight might seem limiting, Appareo communications coordinator, John Pedersen, says the opposite is true. “It's extremely beneficial for us. Our ideologies and vision of the future match together really well,” he notes. “We can do things in terms of quality and control and testing that competitors aren't able to do.”
For example, he says pilots can update Stratus's firmware or software through ForeFlight, as well as control brightness of Stratus's LED lights, reducing control interfaces. Like Levil, much of Appareo's Stratus business is from the experimental market, though the systems can be used in certified aircraft as a situational awareness aid without FAA approval.
Despite the trend toward portable sensors and iPads as displays, not all avionics makers in the sector believe Wi-Fi and tablets are the only way forward.
“At its core, [the iPad] is not a piece of avionics,” says Mike Schofield, marketing manager for Dynon Avionics, the market leader for integrated cockpits in factory-built light sport aircraft. “It's good as a backup tool, but once you have the right stuff in your panel, you don't really need it too much.” With the exception of transponders, light sport aircraft do not require FAA-certified avionics.
“We look at the iPad area with some fascination,” Schofield says. “There's no doubt that tablets and other non-panel devices are becoming an increasing part of people's tool bag, but people are finding they're not really suitable for panel-mounted.” Key to that incompatibility, he notes, is that iPads can overheat and shut down. He says Dynon may be interested in “doing some flight planning” on tablets in the future, but at present, it does not have “interconnectivity” with the devices.
Schofield says Dynon continues to use the “sneaker net” process—plugging a memory stick into the avionics—to update SkyView databases as often as every 28 days. Tablets, in contrast, can receive updates wirelessly anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection.
Aspen Avionics, a builder of certified avionics for the fixed-wing and helicopter markets, is taking the middle ground, with limited interconnectivity with iPhones and iPads. Aspen's Connected Panel technology allows for pilots to transfer flight plans and other information to the installed avionics through the company's CG100 “connected gateway,” priced at $2,499. The caveat is that the aircraft, to be fully compatible, must be equipped with Aspen primary flight and multifunction displays and Garmin GNS400 and GNS500 navigation systems.
With the proper kit, however, Aspen says there is no limit to the clever applications that could exploit the links. The company has applications for transferring flight plans from the iPad to the installed avionics and for handling radio-tuning from the iPad. Safety applications include using the iPad GPS function as a backup position reference if the installed systems fail.