AirVenture Tech Bits
For the past five years, as general aviation has drifted through weak sales and anemic development, the pace of new product rollouts has been similarly flat. This year, as I mentioned in my opening day blog, the industry seems to be stirring, reflecting optimism, if not confidence in full flight.
Even in slow years, I’ve always seen a few products or ideas that leave an impression indelible enough for me make mental notes to follow them over the horizon. This year, my radar pinged three things: LightSpeed’s new headset, a wearable HUD from a company called Aerocross Systems and the Adept Airmotive engine, which I’ve been watching for three years.
First, the headset. Headset intros are a little like street trolleys; if you wait long enough, another one will trundle along claiming to have the best comfort, the best ANR and maybe a revolutionary leap in performance. Meh. The reality often falls short of the marketing claims. But this year, one of the indelibles for me was trying out LightSpeed’s new PDX. (Full disclosure here: LightSpeed is an AVweb sponsor.) Allan Shrader corralled me into the booth to try this thing and when he said the company is doing ANR differently, he wasn’t kidding.
As explained in this podcast, the PDX uses something called “feed forward” technology to sample the noise environment many times a second and perform what Shrader describes as “search and destroy” on the changing ambient noise. The earcups have an external mic to pick up ambient noise and throw it into the ANR solution mix.
Unfortunately, the podcast doesn’t do the effect justice. I think the mics we use for recording podcasts just aren’t good enough to keep up with the ANR performance and I suspect the mic’s presence in the earcup queers the mapping that LightSpeed has devised. Without the mic inserted for the podcast, the noise cancellation was extraordinary. I can only describe it as almost having a density you can feel. I’ll reserve more detailed judgment on the PDX until I’ve flown it in a noisy cockpit, but it sure looks intriguing. And here I thought ANR performance had peaked.
AirVenture often serves as a trial balloon launch pad for dingbat technologies that you know aren’t going anywhere, but which are, at the least, creative entertainment. At first I thought that about Aerocross Systems wearable HUD glasses. Think Google Glass, with the viewer on the right side of a pair of glasses that projects a mini-PFD in front of your right eye, though I suppose it could be on the other eye, too. The display is tiny; no bigger than a quarter. But because it’s designed for infinity focus, it’s quite readable. HUDs haven’t made much of a dent in general aviation, probably because the market is limited and they’ve been ruinously expensive. But at an estimated price of $2000 or so, the Aerocross device, if it makes it to market, might be a winner. Says Aerocross’s Tam Pho, the finished product would likely be a battery operated wireless device that wouldn’t require certification. If the idea of HUDS is a good one—and I think it might be—this gadget could finally make them practical and affordable. Let’s see what Aerocross has in a year or 18 months.
Last, engines. Continental’s burst of diesel activity seems to have placed gasoline engines into the shadows, but they’re still out there. In fact, if diesel engine market penetration quadruples in five years, gasoline engines will still own 90 percent of the installed GA piston market. But gasoline technology is so mature as to be static developmentally. Lycoming has the IE2 engine underway and Continental is expanding its Powerlink FADEC certs, but these aren’t seeing much traction yet.
Against the anemic backdrop is Adept Airmotive’s V-6, which displayed at AirVenture. Here’s a video. What’s good about this engine is that is has terrific power specifics, is relatively efficient with BSFCs in the lower 0.4s and is light enough to fit a range of airplanes. A 300-hp plus option expands the airframe menu further. But nothing is for free. It’s relatively complex compared to the typical Lycoming and watercooled, which complicates conversions, although that wouldn’t necessarily be a factor for OEM installations.
Recall that in 2004, BRP/Rotax offered a similar engine and got the project well along before cancelling it. The engine had significant developmental problems and I suspect Rotax realized, among other things, that it didn’t have the service infrastructure to support such a complex engine. The return on 10 years worth of investment wouldn’t have been too attractive, either.
Adept will have that challenge in the global market but also one advantage that I can see. It’s based in South Africa, a country with an active local market that might give Adept a foothold in fielding and supporting a new engine line before trying to export it elsewhere. It may initially find a good enough conversion market to at least prove the concept.
But no one should have any illusions. Marketing a new engine, much less a gasoline engine, in a universe dominated by Lycoming and Continental engines whose economics and service history have been long since proven, will be a challenge. Were it not for the ongoing extinction of 100LL, even diesel engines would have an uphill fight. Rotax claimed to have had an OEM for its V-6, which was most likely Cirrus. But in the end, for technical and economic reasons, it canned the project. It was probably a wise decision.
But it’s 2013 and the demise of 100LL draws ever closer, so perhaps there’s a tiny wedge of just-right timing for a new, efficient gasoline engine that doesn’t require high-octane fuel. On paper, the Adept engine appears to have the numbers to deliver. Still, it faces long-shot odds in a world where the China-based AVIC International is putting its money on diesel and the inertia of 250,000 or more gasoline engines carries the rest of the market.