The Essence Of Innovation

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I’m sure there must be a thin permeable membrane between creativity and sheer lunacy and a product I saw at Sun 'n Fun creeps right on the fence without quite crossing it. It’s called the BOM and it’s being offered by Levil Aviation, heretofore known for its line of clever ADS-B products. You can see a full video on the project here.

Think of it this way: Remember those wind driven-generators a lot of Cubs and Champs used to have to either charge a starting battery or run a radio? The BOM is sort of the same idea, except—inside the little torpedo-shaped housing that hangs under the wing is an ADAHRS, a pitot-static system, ADS-B, GPS and an angle of attack indicator. The whole of it fits into a housing about the size of a 7-ounce beer bottle and is driven by an onboard battery kept topped off by the little wind-driven brushless alternator.

There’s no switch or control of any kind. The device has a vibration sensor that senses when the engine starts up and fires the unit up. It transmits all of its data wirelessly to the cockpit where it plays on the inevitable tablet app. Traffic, weather, attitude, GPS, AoA—everything in a single wing-mounted $1500 package.

Who thinks up this stuff? In Levil’s case, it’s company principal Rubin Leon. The BOM is intended as a backup unit for both experimental and certified airplanes. It would attach via an inspection plate bracket so on the certified side, I’m not sure if it needs any approvals at all since there’s no wiring or plumbing. It’s entirely self-contained, having its own pitot inlet and static port.

Whether this gadget is practical or not pales against the notion of how utterly creative it is. Given the attention it generated at Sun 'n Fun, I suspect it will find buyers who just think it’s cool as hell for its cleverness. While I certainly don’t need such a thing in the Cub, I’d consider slapping it on the wing and fooling around with it. Some buyers might like it for real backup, if it turns out not to have significant limitations. One might be freezing or water incursion, although it looks well sealed. Leon told me he’s tested it out to 200 knots and the turbine will be sized for various speeds.

What makes the BOM the essence of innovation, in my view, is that it shows how various technologies—miniature GPS boards, ADS-B chips, inexpensive accelerometers driven by the mass cellphone market and tiny little brushless alternators built for some application or another—can be leveraged together into an unpredictable whole. You can’t help but look at the thing and smile.

Airborne Internet

When I fly on airliners, I usually don’t buy the broadband access because I’m cheap, it often doesn’t work very well and I don’t mind dropping off the grid for a while, thanks. During my conversation with Dan Schwinn for this podcast, I realized that this is shortly to change, especially for light aircraft.

Here we are well into 2017 and in this country, we’re still backward about internet access in the sense that as stitched into the economy and culture as the need for access is, it’s often spotty and something that’s sold rather than provided in the interest of the public and commercial good. The bandwidth at the hotel we’re staying at in Lakeland is so crappy that I have to drive down to Starbucks to load a video. This is all too common in my travels.

When I was interviewing Schwinn, I realized I look at this in two ways. In an airplane, I don’t care that much about emailing or browsing the web, but I do like the idea of an airplane that’s constantly tied into a data network sending and receiving data in the background. We already get weather this way, although even SiriusXM may be relatively crude compared to what’s coming. I’m thinking of engine trend data, maintenance information and even air traffic data constantly flowing back and forth; constant access. If Malaysia’s MH370 had such a thing, we would not wonder where the airplane came to earth.

Schwinn described something he called the virtual copilot and that idea resonates. From the comfort of the FBO office, an instructor could monitor and advise a couple of students on cross-country flights. Or a business could help troubleshoot an aircraft problem airborne or at some remote location.

I realize some people fly to escape the dark hole of internet distraction but that’s going to be increasingly difficult. Even my cellphone tracks me when I’m puttering around in the Cub. Then there’s the privacy issue. Last week’s poll revealed that 40 percent of our readers think the FAA’s allowing public access to N-numbers through ADS-B is a privacy concern; 33 percent think it isn’t. I’m in the latter group. If I’m going somewhere I’m not supposed to be or that I that don’t want someone to know about, I’ll ride my motorcycle. Of course, the damn thing has a CANbus and a GPS, so who the hell knows how it’s snitching on me. The only escape is to live a clean life, I guess.   

Comments (5)

On the BOM: "can be leveraged together into an unpredictable whole." Paul, you are a poet. Nice gadget. I'd probably buy it.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 6, 2017 8:52 AM    Report this comment

I get it that constantly being linked to the "outside" world through the internet has its advantages, but the flip side not mentioned in this story is our ever-decreasing ability to think and solve problems "on our feet". How will you fare when all that technology you love so much goes dark? I'm not suggesting turning away anything that increases safety, but part of the reason I fly is to get away from the hand-holding and take on the challenge of aviation WITHOUT any outside help. I don't know, at some level, this constant focus on technology rather than flying, and the dependance on having that "nanny tether" ruins the experience. Yes I carry a smartphone, but I leave it turned off in my pocket. PS - Paul, you ought to build your own airplane. It will completely change your outlook on aviation in ways you can't imagine.

Posted by: Ken Keen | April 6, 2017 11:49 AM    Report this comment

Perhaps I'm missing something with the BOM but what will it do for me my Stratus 2s won't for 2/3's the price and Velcro vs. screws? Though the BOM does remind me of one or two military pods from years past.

WRT MH370, did you mean to say we "wouldn't" wonder where it came to earth?

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | April 6, 2017 1:28 PM    Report this comment

When I worked as a dispatcher for a major fractional ownership outfit back in the 90's, I noticed one of our customers making frequent trips to a certain city where they did not have a business operation. Three months later, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal announcing a merger between the client company and a competitor. Privacy does have some validity.

Posted by: Eric Rood | April 6, 2017 10:04 PM    Report this comment

Eric is exactly right, there are very legitimate reasons for wanting to move about the country without your location being constantly broadcast to the world. It has nothing to do with living a clean life; it can however have a lot to do with personal safety and protection of business interests.

Other than keeping airborne separation (IFR and VFR) how does the flying world differ from private ground transportation? As far as I know, land-based law enforcement does not post real-time tracking of all licensed vehicles online; they won't even let you look up license plate numbers. Neither should the FAA. The airborne separation and identification functions can be achieved without releasing this important data.

Posted by: A Richie | April 7, 2017 9:24 AM    Report this comment

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