AEA: Invasion of the Tiny Boxes

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Whoever coined the phrase that in Las Vegas, wretched excess is never enough missed one thing about this town: It may be tacky, but it's sure expensive. Sooner or later, like the inevitable turn on the Karmic wheel, if you're involved in aviation, you'll do a tour here.

This time it was the Aircraft Electronics Association Convention, a tight, compact show that I like covering because it's, well, tight and compact. Never any plastic toilets nor mudholes to negotiate, which I suppose is one good about Las Vegas.

So what's the mood been? I've tried to strike "upbeat" from my limited vocabulary because that's a word journalists use when they have no clue what to think but their last conversation was with a marketing rep who has even less grasp on reality. I'd say stoic, I guess. It's no secret that sales of certified equipment have been soft if not in decline for quite some time now and no one I spoke to here is waiting for the sales curve to return to 2007. Even self-delusion is just so potent.

But there are still green shoots; there always are, especially for companies who are realistic about what the market is doing now and will likely do a year from now. For example, Mid-Continent Instruments and Avionics' Julie Lowrance told me the company is doing well with its expanded line of services and aggressively hiring engineers. Mid-Continent has always been the type of business to position itself to rebuild and renew as the market sorts itself out. Even in an overall flat or declining market, there are gains to be made. Garmin is another example. Ain't no moss gathering on that stone. And specialty manufacturers always seem to find niches within niches to produce avionics that fulfill a specific need created by a larger trend. That gets us to ADS-B.

There are a flood of these boxes on the market and more on the way. There are so many, in fact, that I was talking to my colleague Larry Anglisano yesterday and we agreed we can't keep up with the rising tide. They've stopped calling them products now. They're "solutions" to the baffling question of what to do about ADS-B. And when to do it. Perversely, the more products—I mean solutions—there are, the harder it is to sort out which ones you should purchase. But we'll get to that in future coverage. We do know there's wide interest; Aspen's John Uczekaj said the company drew 150 attendees for a training session on its ADS-B products, a big number for a small show like this. A couple of other companies also announced various little blind boxes all aimed the ADS-B segment. Now we're staring to see other devices that have ADS-B tie-ins. Whose says you can't make hay out of government programs?

That's one well established trend, but another was little noticed here. That's Garmin's decision to get aggressively into avionics for experimental and light sport aircraft. With its G3X, Garmin has been dabbling in this field for a few years and although it got some takers, the product proved too expensive and too complex to install for many builders. Round two of the G3X slashes the price by more than half and includes a suite of add-ons that I'm sure builders and LSA customers will find attractive. (See a video on that here.)

When I was talking to Garmin's Jim Alpiser he said something I'm hearing more and more: There's a recognition that OEMs have priced themselves out of the market with both new airplanes and avionics and some people are plainly saying this, as Alpiser did. That used to be proverbial log in the punchbowl that no one really spoke about. The price delta between Garmin's new experimental products and its certified equipment is just breathtaking. Just consider the autopilot. Garmin's GFC700 is the current top of the heap and although it doesn't have a readily available aftermarket version for small aircraft, a barely comparable autopilot from S-TEC runs well into the $20,000 range, installed. The non-certified version of this autopilot from Garmin is $1500; a bit over $2200 with a fancy control panel included.

This price disparity doesn't exactly reset the clock, but it does reverse an unfortunate trend line of avionics being the largest component expense item in airplanes. That hasn't been true in experimentals or LSAs, because avionics for those airplane cost a fraction of certified gear. But Garmin's entry into the market offers more competition and some price-favorable choices for buyers that I'd sure like to see on the certified side, just as badly as I'd like to see Las Vegas in my rear view mirror.

I know I'm going to see the latter later today, but the former? Not holding my breath.

Comments (19)

Part 1

2020 is the magic number. For several years now, I've been saying that that's when more than half of the light GA fleet will be retired permanently. Why? ADS-B, GPS, ELTs, and worn-out gyros - all happening at once. To say nothing of the very likely obsolescence of many high-compression gasoline-fueled engines. The technology exists TODAY to produce a "super box," at a profit. ADHRS, EICAS, TCAS, Mode-S, ADS-B in/out ES and UAT, VHS COM, AM/FM and SAT for entertainment, ELT embedded in the remote antennae, autopilot, AMOLED display with HITS portrayal, and plug-in battery reserve power. If you install the servos, you can add autoland – the electronic replacement for CAPS. One enclosure; one multi-panel rigid-flex board. Want redundancy in anything? Install another super-box, and get concurrent-operations redundancy in everything. Accessorize it with Bluetooth. Then get the FAA to pay Garmin and Jeppesen to co-stream software updates, “charts,” and real-time TFRs using the ADS-B upchannel bandwidth.

Posted by: Thomas Yarsley | March 28, 2013 2:39 PM    Report this comment

Part 2

The magic price? $10k, installed. Sound nutty? The hardest part of the installation would be ripping out the entire panel and everything that's attached to it. Use networked sensors and home-run the very few antennae. What's the upside for the manufacturers? The market probably could swallow over 200,000 such boxes. For those in Rio Linda, that's a cool $2 billion in sales. I always thought that Garmin would prefer to sell far fewer boxes at ten times the price. But with their latest announcements, that Genie may have been let out of the bottle for good. I'm beginning to have hope... Such a super-box would kill today's very lucrative Garmin pricing paradigm – a major blow. But done right, they could own the entire market – a huge payoff on a major gamble. But the FAA needs to be on-board. What are the chances?

So - a revitalized fleet, or an excess of scrap aluminum in 2020?

Posted by: Thomas Yarsley | March 28, 2013 2:39 PM    Report this comment

I totally agree with Thomas. If a manufacturer wanted to rule the industry they would make such a "box". It may just be me but the whole notion of needing 10 different boxes, some new and old, with compatibility issues and likely a mile of wiring with literally hundreds of connecting points, to make a plane safe and legal to fly is beyond me. I'd love for all aircraft to have the same avionics capability for a price point that does not exceed that of the existing airframe. I don't expect that to happen but Garmin may be warming up to the idea. I believe they see how the iPad has cut into there "box" sales. I wont go anywhere without mine. And my iPhone is my backup. The iPad won't fix my 2020 requirements, but I wont get lost and I validate on every VFR flight that what it tells me is accurate...more than my legacy and "legal" 70's era VOR/LOC recievers ever have. So manufactures, keep selling a box that does one thing for $5 grand, or helps me do an approach for $15 grand. I'll pass and I'll imagine many other pilots like me will do the same.

Posted by: Michael Piervy | March 29, 2013 11:05 AM    Report this comment

Good observations Paul, thanks. Tom, I don't like to have all my goodies in one box. I design some stuff like this, and I'll keep some modularity, thanks. Much as I would like to see that kind of choice and price point, there are two rather large roadblocks. The first is the FAA. In Fairness, they have a thankless, endless, and impossible task in this area. No surprise, they are behind technologically, and move glacially. Sometimes this is good (thank goodness we don't get half the government we pay for). The requirements they put on any manufacture of IFR stuff, is horrible. That alone will preclude any truly low cost alternatives. The second problem is the Lawyers (and broken tort law). Aren't these reasons why we have 1960s technology engines? Fly well, KP

Posted by: kim peck | March 29, 2013 12:20 PM    Report this comment

No new fleet by 2020. To see the future, tap the past. Seven years ago was 2006 and the airframe product line then didn't look much different than it does now, except the volume was a little higher. Cirrus was dominating; G1000 was hot; DA42, too. Honda announced its jet, but still doesn't have it.

The iPad wasn't around then and it has changed the avionics market, but not the airframe market. There are no market changers in sight that will do that; not diesel engines, not small turbines, not manufacturing breakthroughs.

The legacy fleet will continue to drive GA for most of us for quite some time. If there's some kind of regulatory reform to reduce cert time and cost, maybe the magic box will appear. With a few tweaks, that's what a G1000 is. This did happen in LSA, by the way, but the volumes aren't very big.

Just because we can see it from here, doesn't mean we can get to it from here.

By the way, to gauge market size, ask yourself how many GNS-series boxes Garmin has sold.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 29, 2013 12:23 PM    Report this comment


The G1000 indeed was hot, but only for OEMs - by design. And let's admit it - how big is the market for a $40k + retrofit collection of boxes? Not very big, for those of us for whom that equals or exceeds what we could get for our aircraft if we tried to sell them in April of 2013.

With all due respect to Kim, I also design stuff like this, and the ONLY way to get the cost down is to integrate the product(s). Lower BOM cost; lower assembly cost; increased reliability; fewer sales SKUs, with concomitant lower costs of product support; vastly lower installation costs; vastly reduced maintenance costs, owing to a very-low-count FRU architecture.

I'm with you, regarding market size, except I would anticipate a 4x penetration of the GNS count, because the "magic box" would have two additional attractions: regulatory compliance (2020 requirements) and simultaneous replacement of all of the "sacred six" junk out there. A lot of pilots would cough up $10k to have a completely new panel with soup-to-nuts features.

Any way you look at it, it's $billions with a "B." I remember designing billion-dollar products - you had to be a moron not to be able to make money when the market was that deep. On the other hand, I've worked for some world-class morons..... ;-)

Posted by: Thomas Yarsley | March 29, 2013 3:02 PM    Report this comment

Paul, When I saw what Garmin did my first thought was "What is going to happen to GRT, Dynon, AFS, MGL?" And my second question was "Is Garmin going to be responsive enough to Experimental requirements to be a reasonable alternative." ...those markets being programmability and compatibility with all the other gizmos in the airplane: engine sensors, fuel sensors, control surface status, electrical distribution, auto-pilots.

Posted by: Colyn Case | March 30, 2013 9:48 PM    Report this comment

I'd love to have ADS-B - both in and out - in my plane, but I don't want a "Solution". I want a single product. It needs to include a display, a transceiver (squitter) and probably a GPS receiver -- all in one package from the seller for a reasonable price. Perhaps $5,000 is reasonable, but competition will determine the final pricing.

I don't want a "Solution" that requires I buy an Ipad (which I refuse to do) and try to find a place in my plane to hang the equipment I'm supposed to already have. I don't want a battery powered display or any other device. It all needs to be panel mounted and run on aircraft power. When it becomes available and easy to install in my experimental airplane I will happily buy and use it.

Posted by: Paul Mulwitz | April 1, 2013 7:17 AM    Report this comment

If certified is costing 10x similar experimental, I can see a bit of friction developing in the market place.

Isn't Aspen the current low cost certified champion? What does a full Aspen IFR panel run these days?

Posted by: Eric Warren | April 1, 2013 9:27 AM    Report this comment

AS another pilot that "designs stuff like this" too (design engineer & former avionics tech) I agree with Tom Yarsley; one box is best with a second for backup if need be. Look at the way ELTs are built; one box with pretty much universal application. You gotta get rid of those massive wiring harnesses if you want reliability.

Heck, I just want airspeed, altimiter, and whatever this box is for my Cub to I can stay legal in ever-increasing complex airspace. I'm afraid that flying for fun is going to be regulated out of existence; I hope it is later rather than sooner.

Posted by: A Richie | April 1, 2013 10:29 AM    Report this comment

While you are thinking about designing a "superbox," you might as well add in a scanning DME receiver. The plan is for VORs to start going away (already in the works), and to operate in the NextGen environment, you are going to have to have an alternative to GPS, which will always have the inherent signal strenght issues of any space-based solution. DME-DME RNAV is the backup, and with the scanning DME on board, it is just a little software and a larger database before you have pretty much a full-up FMS system on board. Maybe an upgrade option to the superbox, since that would be overkill for the weekend (VFR only) warrior. Given that an engine swap is well into the 20K range these days, maybe 15K for an IFR avionics package isn't too much of a stretch.....

Posted by: Kerry Bedsworth | April 1, 2013 12:45 PM    Report this comment

Kerry, Aren't VORs and DMEs usually co-located in the same hut? I can't see them shutting down VORs while leaving the DMEs up and running; it's too expensive to maintain those sites and they want to get rid of it all including cooling and maintenance which is expensive...

Posted by: A Richie | April 1, 2013 1:30 PM    Report this comment

I certainly agree there is a huge opportunity for a company to come out with one box to meet all ADS-B requirements and replace all the steam gauges in the process at a reasonable cost. Also, if something along these lines doesn't happen, I believe a lot of legacy aircraft owners will not upgrade to ADS-B and come 2020 will simply start flying below 10,000’ and out side controlled airspace. If that turns out to be true, and it includes a large number of aircraft, it will compromise the safety of the ADS-B system as a whole.

In view of that very real possibility, I think the FAA should either get off their rear and change how they do their equipment certifications, or get out of the way. The 10X cost increase of certified equipment over similar functionality in non-certified equipment is more than ridiculous.

I have a suggestion for the FAA. How about establishing a Demonstrated Ability Waiver for non-certified equipment, similar to what they do for pilot color vision issues? Most of the non-certified equipment such as Dynon, has demonstrated very high safety and reliability performance levels, probably comparable to most of the certified glass panel equipment. And how do they compare to the old steam gauge installations? Just the reliability improvement alone, of the non-certified equipment compared to the steam gauges, should make this a no-brainer.

Posted by: Jerry Olson | April 1, 2013 2:14 PM    Report this comment

Kerry makes an interesting point about an alternative to GPS. I've always asserted that the Obama administration was nuts (imagine that!) to have shut down the reliable and accurate Loran system that was in place, and which had very low maintenance costs. Turn it back on!!! My Loran navigator still is sitting in its tray; when energized, it readily whines about its loss of signal - as do I.

This was another classic case of letting "the perfect" (GPS) become the enemy of "the good" (Loran). Sometimes I think that if brains were dynamite, our fearless leaders wouldn't be able to blow their noses.

Posted by: Thomas Yarsley | April 2, 2013 6:51 AM    Report this comment

I already pulled the loran out but I've still got the old Lear Bird Dog (NDB) over in the dark dusty corner of my panel. It still works so I'm good to go.

Posted by: Richard Montague | April 2, 2013 7:51 AM    Report this comment

And you don't need to spend money on database updates every 56 days for that NDB!

Posted by: matthew wagner | April 2, 2013 10:36 AM    Report this comment

I don't think NDB or DME will substitute for GPS very well in ADS-B. Perhaps you could shoot an instrument approach with these antique systems, but normal cross country navigation would be problematical. Indeed there seems to be no substitute for most aircraft should GPS stop working enroute. That is a problem that must be solved if the FAA is to shut down all the airways by turning off VOR.

Posted by: Paul Mulwitz | April 2, 2013 11:09 AM    Report this comment

Needing a transponder for my C172, I've been researching pro's and con's of going 1090ES vs 978UAT as the first step in a phased ADS-B "solution." The FAA wants GA to go the 978 route and uses free WX as the hook. But then I find you still have to have a transponder aboard and it must talk to the 978 equipment. So I decide to buy a 1090ES transponder first and hope that the WAAS GPS sensor prices come down some before I actually need it. But THAT will only give me ADS-B out. So I need a display but THAT will only give me TIS-B traffic. A non-certified box will give me the 978 IN TIS and FIS and isn't free. Suddenly ADS-B becomes a transponder, GPS, display, 978 IN box and maybe an iPad. I guess that's why it's a "SOLUTION?"

I took a Dynon course and salivate over the possibilities but can't put the "solution" in my 172.

Just who the heck is running the FAA anyways ...

2020 IS going to be a pivotal year for GA...the beginning of the end unless someone wakes up in DC.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 7, 2013 2:55 AM    Report this comment

If Garmin can make and sell a $1500 non certified autopilot and it doesn't cause the plane to crash, then the obvious problem is that the certification standards are ridiculous.

There should be an easy certification path for such devices to be used on private (non fly for hire) aircraft. After a period of time in use if there is no bloodbath of crashes caused by that device that should be extended to all aircraft.

The purpose of certification is to be sure it's "safe", not to make sure it costs 10x as much! Testing on LSA and homebuilts is a good way to find out whether it's "safe" or not.

Posted by: Steve Waechter | April 16, 2013 11:21 AM    Report this comment

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