Avionics: Will Sun 'n Fun Reveal the Next Big Thing?
Compared to aviation market trends, glaciers move at the speed of light, so I wasn’t too surprised earlier this month that the Aircraft Electronics Association show in Nashville didn’t reveal the next big thing. Still, there are whispers in the wind, I suppose.
Maybe what’s more interesting was what we didn’t see, making me wonder what’s ahead for later in the year. BendixKing showed an internet connectivity box for cabin class airplanes, but nothing yet for the small piston crowd. Almost everyone I speak to agrees there’s potential for less expensive, simpler-to-operate avionics. Such products might be focused on the retrofit market, but if GA is going to get serious about making airplanes more affordable, won’t such products need to migrate into new airplanes, too?
In previous blogs, I’ve discussed Aspen Avionics’ new VFR product and here’s a complete video on the subject. This goes exactly in the direction that BendixKing has outlined and at $4995, they’ll find some takers, unless, as has perversely been the case, people complain about high prices then insist on buying the highest priced products with every whiz bang feature imaginable.
Increasingly, the market is for retrofit and many owners have told us they’d like to upgrade their older airplanes with something, but not a $40,000 IFR suite that they’ll use for 30 hours a year. So the Aspen product fits into that niche and solves a problem at a reasonable price. It’s upgradeable to fully certified IFR status for owners who want to go there, but given current activity trends, I’m not sure how many will.
The whisper in the wind, if there is one, is what may be a trend back toward what the avionics guys are now calling the “federated” approach—individual, discrete devices rather than big, expensive megaboxes like the G1000 or even the more modest Aspen system or G500/G600. This might consist of individual electronic gyros—really mini-EFISs--such as the one Sandia introduced at AEA. It’s entirely self-contained, operating on ship’s power with battery back-up and static and pitot inputs, so it gives altitude and airspeed. At $3595, it’s certified and intended as a back-up instrument, but there’s nothing to keep an owner from installing it in the hole normally reserved for the AI and relocating the iron AI somewhere else. It’s sort of modernization with a boat anchor of having to retain an old vacuum system to remain legal. Silly isn’t it? But that’s where we are. And by the way, the Aspen VFR EFIS would similarly require retaining the vacuum instruments if the airplane were originally certified with them.
I’m sure Garmin won’t be left out of the small or self-contained back-up gyro market. They’ve obviously got the chops to build their own and I would expect to see one from them soon, maybe this year. Sun ‘n Fun, perhaps? We’ll see this week.
If that happens, whatever their gyro is will join products from L-3, Mid-Continent, Sandia and the uncertified D1/D2 Pocket Panels from Dynon. The field could get crowded, but that doesn’t necessarily mean inexpensive. To me, “inexpensive” means under $2000, which is where the Dynon products are priced. The L-3 Trilogy, for example, is $12,200 while Mid-Continent’s SAM retails for around $8800. That’s why Aspen’s VFR suite represents a breakthrough for someone who just wants the thrill of EFIS and doesn’t care whether it’s IFR certified.
I’m not sure anyone can say if the emergence of the small, discrete EFIS products represents a sea change away from big, expensive megaboxes or is just the inevitable hunting for new products by manufacturers looking for another niche.
Another example of the latter is Garmin’s entry into the angle-of-attack indicator market, with the announcement at AEA of the new $1499 GI 260, which appears to be an outgrowth of a similar product it announced last year for the experimental market. Besides price, the appeal of this one is that it doesn’t need STC or PMA approvals, so installation should no longer be the barrier it once was.
In the aviation press, we have lionized AoA indicators as the flight safety equipment that every pilot should have, but on balance, the market has yawned at them. Perhaps they’ll generate some sales now that the equipment is more affordable and easy to install. That’s a good thing. But personally, my opinion of the safety benefits has evolved. Worthy as they are, I think we—aviation writers—have overstated the potential benefits of AoA and the readers who are the potential buyers see that and move on to the next bright, shiny object.
So, as for the next big thing in avionics, it didn’t declare itself at AEA. As the association reported, business is on the upswing with overall sales up by 6.9 percent in 2013 over the previous year. Shops are busy with installs and upgrades, although most have not returned to 2008 levels. It could be even with that modest market uptick, the manufacturers just don’t see enough vitality to justify the launch of major new products. On the OEM side, glass is now standard equipment, with Garmin’s G1000 as the go-to choice. With under 1000 new piston airframes sold last year, what’s the business case for a major new system or series of products to drive new aircraft prices down? New OEM sales are just about at the lost-cause point and I’m just not feeling the love around claims that the Part 23 revision is going to meaningfully change this. In the retrofit segment, it’s a different dynamic, which explains the trend toward new products for older airplanes with Aspen and Sandia being the exemplars. We’ll see if more is coming.
Now as for the next big thing in general aviation—not limited to avionics--I did see that on a computer display at the lobby of the hotel where I was staying. More on that in a future blog.