Kelvin Scribner has a neat little parlor trick he was pulling at AirVenture this week. His company, Sagetech, builds a miniature Mode-S transponder and when he hands you one, he points to a little notch cut into one edge. "That's there," he says, "so a full-size image of it will fit on a standard business card." And so it does. The transponder's footprint is the size of a business card and it's a little over a quarter of an inch thick. This product was developed for the UAV industry but as I'll note in a video later in the week, it has implications for general aviation.
Specifically, Sagetech was showing at AirVenture a stunning little module about the size of an inch-thick drink coaster that's a combined ADS-B and ADAHRS, with the output playing on—what else?—an iPad. If Scribner hadn't demonstrated it, I'd have swore the thing was a product of an over-active imagination. But it was real enough and when he showed it to me, the light bulb went off. Increasingly, I'm hearing and reading about the fantasy panel that consists of a couple of thin tablet computers—iPads maybe, but something else would do—driven by small, low cost GPS navigators, ADS-B and ADAHRS. Well, this is it. The bits and pieces are there for at least experimental builders to put together such a panel for $5000 or less, including all the redundancy you could possibly want with dual systems and back-up batteries. All that's missing is a remote comm module driven by the displays and I'm quite certain someone is working on that. Even at that, Trig Avionics already has a miniature navcomm you could find room for in the tiniest of panels with space to spare.
The only reason these remarkable developments won't trickle into the world of certified aircraft is that TSOs and certification hoops will erect barriers for their entry. In the FAA's eyes, safety has to cost a lot of money. But LSAs could certainly benefit and the white-hot pace of research in the drone market will inevitably influence design and cost trends in avionics to some degree. (This has already happened in propeller design.) If you thought the last 10 years was interesting, the next 10 will be more so.
Speaking of 10 years, that's how long it will take China to equal or surpass the U.S. as the major manufacturer—and exporter—of GA aircraft. At least that's the opinion of David Chang, who was staffing the China Aviation Industrial Base booth at AirVenture. CAIB is an aviation industrial incubator in China's Xi' An province, southwest of Beijing. I mentioned it in this blog about James Fallows' excellent book, China Airborne. I asked many of the GA execs I encountered at AirVenture if they'd read it. Only a couple had. Guys, you better get busy and get informed.
Back to Chang's claim. Is it realistic? On its face, it's preposterous, but when you push some numbers around, it's a little less outlandish. If we confine the discussion to light aircraft GA, the U.S. manufactured 1861 general aviation airplanes in 2011, in a down year. But the GA economy continues to drift and many companies report flat or declining sales. If that trend continues while China ramps up production—both by buying U.S. companies and establishing its own—you can begin to see how the curves could cross.
Although I'm a skeptic on the real demand for aircraft inside China, I also realize that this market is impossible to predict. The usual metrics simply can't be applied and anybody who says they can is simply misguided, in my view.
I had a long and engaging meeting with John and Martha King on Thursday, discussing a number of topics mostly related to how to reduce the fatal accident rate in GA. It now stands at about 1.2/100,000 hours and has remained unchanged for a decade.
The Kings are exploring the notion of courseware or some kind of program to give pilots a better understanding of flight risk. And I deliberately use the word "understanding" and not "risk management," which I have come to loathe as just another overused industry buzz word. We already have risk management programs and training in place and these don't seem to be having much meaningful effect, although they clearly have in the airline and business flying realm.
I'm not sure that given the relative freedom of the commons that GA represents that we can do much with training or regulation to move the fatal accident needle downward. The great thing about aviation in the U.S. is that you're perfectly unrestrained from taking off in bad weather in an airplane you're barely proficient in to make a pile of shredded metal (or plastic) in the middle of a schoolyard full of the children of plaintiffs' attorneys.
Americans chafe at having safety nannies looking over their shoulders and the pilots most likely to make craters can be just downright rude about having their judgments second guessed. There may be some way to get into the heads of such pilots to give them a gentle dope slap from the only space that matters: between the ears. But I'm not so sure. During my lifetime, I've participated in various high-risk sports and activities and it's my observation that there's a certain percentage of people who are just naturally all thrust and no compass. (On some days, I think I'm one of them.) It could be that some percentage of pilots are simply craters looking for a grid reference and nothing we can do will change that. But I laud the effort to try. It's a worthy one.
Although I can't put my finger on it, I felt a sea change at AirVenture this year. For us here at Avweb, it was more hectic than ever—more things to cover, more people to see and more things left undone. But it was never crowded. I didn't experience any long food lines and the crowds in the exposition hangars were only selectively dense.
This made me realize that I really don't like crowds, so I enjoyed this year's show more than any I can remember since I've been going. EAA has made subtle changes around the grounds that improve things and for the most part, they've got the traffic and parking thing figured out. Not having carts zooming through the main expo area is good as are the lavs they put in the main hangars a few years ago.
We always have minor problems setting up for this show—this year, our trailer didn't have steps for two days, requiring an utterly undignified crawl into the office. (They weren't laughing with us.) A tip of the hat to EAA's Dick Knapinski for helping sort this out and for at least no giggling openly at the specter.
What will next year bring? More international participation I'd guess, especially from China. Three Chinese companies had presence here. I'd expect to see more next year because despite what happens in China, Europe, India and Brazil, AirVenture is still the most important and engaging aviation show on the planet. If you're not here, you risk not being taken seriously. And these days, nobody can afford that.