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Avionics: Will Sun 'n Fun Reveal the Next Big Thing?

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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.

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Comments (14)

Paul,

I am surprised the aviation press has been so silent on what seems to be the elephant in the room. When the Primary Non Commercial Category is implemented by 2016, as the FAA has been directed by Congress to do, this segment of the GA avionics market will be affected more than any other.

When guys with 30-something yr old Mooney 201's like me can have access to a Garmin G3X suite or its like-competitors, it'll put serious cost pressure on Aspen, and send the likes of STec out to well deserved pasture. The mfg's must all be treading water and thinking about their strategy for the post 2016 landscape.

Dan Chang

Posted by: Dan Chang | March 31, 2014 1:30 AM    Report this comment

You may be right, Dan. I asked about this, but no one seems ready to discuss it because the rules aren't fleshed out. Garmin is well positioned because they've moved into the experimental segment.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 31, 2014 4:44 AM    Report this comment

The benefits of AOA are not overstated. But we aren't going to realize those benefits by just sticking indicators in airplanes and expecting that to solve things. We need to properly teach AOA awareness under ALL phases of flight. That means using the AOA indicator (and/or PFD with flight path marker) as a visual training aid in maneuvering flight (up to and including accelerated stalls) until the pilot instinctively knows what his AOA is doing in any given situation, AND what the result of any given maneuver will be.

Yes, it's a complete change in paradigm. It means we have to move past the way things were done decades ago, and teach directly to the actual underlying physics instead of relying on inaccurate, indirect proxies for them.

Posted by: Bob Martin | March 31, 2014 7:55 AM    Report this comment

The benefits of AOA are not overstated. But we aren't going to realize those benefits by just sticking indicators in airplanes and expecting that to solve things. We need to properly teach AOA awareness under ALL phases of flight. That means using the AOA indicator (and/or PFD with flight path marker) as a visual training aid in maneuvering flight (up to and including accelerated stalls) until the pilot instinctively knows what his AOA is doing in any given situation, AND what the result of any given maneuver will be.

Yes, it's a complete change in paradigm. It means we have to move past the way things were done decades ago, and teach directly to the actual underlying physics instead of relying on inaccurate, indirect proxies for them.

Posted by: Bob Martin | March 31, 2014 7:55 AM    Report this comment

That Apsen avionics VFR unit is pretty interesting and they were smart enough to include upgrade paths in the design.

Sure beats the heck out of those old Escort 110 units we used to fly behind (ha ha)!

Posted by: A Richie | March 31, 2014 9:53 AM    Report this comment

Actually, I thought the Escort was pretty nifty! So was the King KR86 ADF. With just those 2 little boxes, which would fit in just about any panel, we could talk with ATC and navigate anywhere--what more could you ask? :)

On AoA, I agree that having the indicator isn't enough, and I don't think the aviation media has gone overboard in any fashion--an AoA indicator greatly improves the panel. But for it to improve safety, CFIs must learn how to teach the benefits of the AoA indicator, and how to use it effectively. I've had mine for some 4 years and roughly 250 hours now, and it took me a long time to instinctively use it vs. instinctively watching the airspeed indicator in slow approaches and other maneuvers (4 decades of doing it the way I was taught has something to do with that). Now it's part of my scan, and actually the easiest part during approach, since it sits on top of my panel and within my vision as I watch the runway.

Cary

Posted by: Cary Alburn | March 31, 2014 10:39 AM    Report this comment

Another factor is the dropping price of hand held navigation devices. Not that I wouuld use these for IFR but these days you can get a very nice moving map display running on an Android device for very low cost. For example, take an older HP touchpad, load Android, add a BT-821 bluetooth GPS and Avare software and for less that $200 I have a respectable moving map. The Avare software is open source and all they ask is a contriibution. You decide on how much it is worth and what you can affort. This isnn't for everyone as it takes some technical knowledge but it can be done quite nicely.

Posted by: Dana Nickerson | March 31, 2014 11:33 AM    Report this comment

The Aspen VFR product couldn't be less interesting to me. As I understand it, you still have to tear out the headliner and poke a hole in the roof to put in yet another GPS antenna. What I want and what I'll pay for is an electronic version of a KI 256 (Bendix King Attitude Indicator) with the autopilot interface built-in. If it includes a replacement for the HSI, that's OK too. Oh, and it has to be installable for somewhere less than the quotes that I've gotten for the Aspen and Garmin units (like less than 10%). What I don't need is yet another moving map GPS. If you count my iPhone and iPad, I already have five of them in the airplane.

Posted by: Phil Ryder | March 31, 2014 11:55 AM    Report this comment

The new Garmin G3X looks intuitive, has AOA, and touchscreens help make the boxes easier to use. As mentioned above if the primary non-commercial regs pass I understand that we can put non certified stuff in certified airplanes, that will make upgrading easier I would hope. As for what the next big thing is, perhaps everyone is waiting on that legislation to pass before they unveil it. I think they might have teased us with the products brought out in the past month. It's going to be intresting to see in the next couple years because currently the G500/600, GTN's, even non-certified things like the Dynons are rather expensive.

Posted by: Joshua Waters | March 31, 2014 12:48 PM    Report this comment

Everything I'm hearing is talking about making upgrades cheaper, not about making aircraft operation cheaper. Quite frankly, most of us are still renting Cessnas and Pipers from flight schools. Until one can rent a 4-seat, 150 to 200HP IFR-capable bird for $100 an hour or less, and have that be reasonably profitable for the flight school, we're just talking about chipping away at expenses for those who own the most expensive airframes in the fleet. That's a valiant effort, for sure, but it's not going to do anything for safety. Until we can get the 50-hour-a-year pilots (me, for example) up to flying 100 hours a year on a budget that doesn't go too high above $10,000, we're never going to increase safety, and we're not even going to stem the tide of the dropping pilot population.

Posted by: Joshua Levinson | March 31, 2014 5:02 PM    Report this comment

I'm building an RV-9A, and coming from the Experimental perspective, it's laughable and sad to see the exclamations of joy over something that costs $5000 to $10000 and does so little. Take a look at, for instance, Dynon Avionics to see what I mean.

Glad Congress if finally agreeing on something and kicking the FAA's butt. I don't know what PNC Category means, but it can't be worse than what we have now, with modern Certificated avionics costing half as much or more as the aircraft is worth.

Posted by: Ralph Finch | April 1, 2014 1:24 PM    Report this comment

Backup instruments cost a fortune. The panel function on my GPS compares very nicely to my 6 pack and I believe it would do fine getting me down in an emergency. My unit provides VFR charts, Airport info and diagrams, IFR charts and approach plates. It is ADSB compatible as well. Why spend thousands when a few hundred will do. It's time we stopped being ripped off by the big boys in aviation toys. I bet most of us fly the six pack and a VFR GPS nearly 100% of the time, with ATC advisories as well. Flying with in the aircraft's performance envelope will certainly keep us all safe. For those who do not, nothing will prevent them from editing the gene pool. Not even an AoA.

Posted by: Mel Eaton | April 1, 2014 2:54 PM    Report this comment

Given comments that $100 per hour is too much for a rental and that Dynon equipment is too expensive need to recall that there is no free lunch. Fuel, bank loans, offices, mechanics, etc actually cost flight schools money. The engineers at Garmin and Dynon are scarce commodities that actually need to be paid. It actually costs money to support, develop and market complex life-critical electronics and software. There are no panaceas in the form of lower cost certification or LSAs, especially as--as it turns out--there is no market for the stripped down, bare bones models. Some of you need to come to grips with this inconvenient fact: you simply cannot afford to fly, and should simply find another past time. Sunday drive instead of a Sunday flight, perhaps.

Posted by: Michael Sheridan | April 1, 2014 5:06 PM    Report this comment

Michael Sheridan,

It's not a question of being able to afford to fly. I have my 8-10K budget for flying every year. After the fixed costs are all taken into account, and including around 5 or so hours with an instructor every year, that leaves me flying 50 hours a year. That's enough for me to enjoy. So, I can afford to fly on that budget. I think it's a reasonable amount to spend, and I think there enough people who can afford it to at least maintain a stable pilot population.

BUT. It's not enough to do anything about safety. All the gadgetry in the world is no substitute for currency. Unless we're going to build true dog-and-a-man airplanes where it's all autopilot all the time, with no option for manual flight at all, getting people to spend more hours in the left seat is the single biggest thing we can do for safety.

If pilots were flying 75, 100 hours a year, then I'd be more optimistic about certification rules for avionics. As it is, they're simply not what the fleet needs to improve safety for the vast majority of pilots out there.

Is $100 an hour unreasonable? It certainly is given the current economic environment, but I don't think it's out of reach. I fly from one of the busiest non-airline airports out there. The flight school I rent from rents a Tomahawk for $99 an hour, Hobbs, wet. They're not IFR, and they're not quite enough on speed or range to meet the criteria I laid out above. But it shows that even in the current climate, $100 an our is at least in reach depending on the compromises one is willing to make. I'm guessing that is loss-leader pricing, since they make up a fair bit on instructor fees and other incidentals, since the Tomahawks are mostly used by students, not private pilot renters.

What could drastically change the equation? Electric planes are still a very long way away, but they could certainly cut down on things a lot, both in terms of wet costs (electric power is much cheaper than avgas, though that will be tempered a bit by AOG time for charging). Electric motors are also much simpler, so they should cut down on overhaul frequency and expense.

In the short term, while airplanes are still avgas powered, I don't see how you could have a reasonable 4 seat aircraft on less than 180HP, maybe 160HP or even 150HP if newer certification rules can bring gross weight down substantially. That's 8-10 gal/hr, so figure somewhere between $50 and $60 an hour for fuel, a little less given taxi time that's billed at a Hobbs rate but actually slower. So it leaves $40-$50 an hour for all other operating expenses. Maybe newer certification rules can bring parts prices down, but it's still marginal rather than game-changing. I don't know enough about maintenance practices to know if any substantial regulatory changes could cut down on the man-hours needed to keep planes airworthy. Maybe the FAA could be more lenient with repair stations about required vs. optional work? I feel like there is enough room here to nip and tuck at the expenses to just get actual operating cost to that $100 an hour for a flight school. Give them a 25% profit margin and that's $125 an hour wet. I feel like we're getting closer to the $100 an hour I've laid out.

I don't know if it can happen. But I do know that a Cessna 172 for $160 an hour is not going to cut it. It just won't cross the price-per-utility threshold for many people, even those who would otherwise be willing to spend $10,000 a year on airplanes. That same plane at $125 just might.

Posted by: Joshua Levinson | April 1, 2014 7:09 PM    Report this comment

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