The Future of Avionics

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While the airframe and engine technology used in light aircraft hasn't changed much in the last twenty years, their avionics have progressed at lightspeed. Today's Bonanza, Centurion or Mooney TLS may well sport a GPS, moving map display, sferics weather avoidance gear, even an EFIS. The rapid advance in lightplane electronics will continue, and here's a peek at what you can expect next.

It is certainly awe-inspiring to witness the cascade of new avionics that are unveiled continuously. But what about the future? What can we expect to see in the months and years ahead? Well, the black box manufacturers are notoriously reticent about revealing what's being cobbled up in their respective skunkworks; for one thing, they don't want to give away their plans to the competition, and for another, they're not eager to undercut the sales of their current products. But we can come up with a pretty good picture, based on a combination of industry trends, tidbits picked up here and their, and information released by the government.

So here goes. Let's start with some of the innovations that have already been pioneered by several manufacturers and are likely to multiply into a wide range of products. And you won't be surprised to note that all of these new directions relate to Global Positioning System nav receivers and other GPS-oriented devices.

GPS/Comms:

These are systems that combine-either all in one box or in separate modules-GPS nav with VHF comm capability. In this case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts because the GPS position information is used by the system's computer to call up the appropriate comm frequencies for the pilot to select. The most sophisticated of these systems to date is Northstar's Smart/Comm; as an example of how it uses its smarts, if you have just fired up, Smart/Comm's computer knows you are not moving and will therefore present you with your airport's ATIS, clearance delivery, ground control, and tower frequencies. You can select the desired frequency and activate it at the press of a key-and so on, throughout all the regimes of your ensuing flight. Bendix/King offers two not-quite-as-clever GPS/comms, one of which is a hand-held. It's a fairly easy prediction that we'll be seeing more GPS/comms of varying degrees of sophistication, and in time the VOR-based nav/comm will be a museum piece.

PC Updates:

More and more manufacturers are offering interface kits that enable the user to update the GPS database by means of a diskette and a cable connection to a personal computer. Some of the software allows you to perform additional functions, such as uploading flight plans (routes) and downloading the track history of a flight. This capability will expand to the point where you will be able to update the operating software of your receiver in the same way. If, for example, the manufacturer comes up with a map that shows rivers, highways, and cities, you'll be able to plug this improvement into your receiver via the PC interface. II Morrow's new Precedus hand-held has this PC updatability, plus a relatively large amount of memory for expansion. The Precedus is designed along the lines of a PC. A new company called Avidine goes even further, with a panel-mounted system whose open architecture will accept software from third party vendorstruly like a PC.

Precision Approaches:

GPS in the IFR environment has made rapid strides, and there are now more than 4000 GPS non-precision approaches, with more being added all the time. The goal is to have at least one approach for nearly every public use airport. Precision approaches, with vertical as well as lateral guidance, will require supplemental equipment, since GPS altitude data is not sufficiently precise at present. A technology known as differential GPS will be utilized for precision approaches. This involves the use of ground-based monitors that can correct the GPS errors, using their own locations as a reference. At present, a few GPS precision approaches are being installed in Canada and Australia; we should start getting some in the US by 1997.

Color Moving Maps:

Until recently, there was a GPS receiver that had a built-in color moving map, and that was Ashtech's Altair AV-12, substantially priced at $8,500. But Ashtech has discontinued the AV-12 and gone out of the aviation business, which is unfortunate. Color is not just pretty to look at; it is useful in such functions as helping the pilot to differentiate between, say, airport and VOR icons, and can provide a visual alert to nearby special use airspace. Eventide now offers color versions of their Argus 5000 and 7000, and Avidine (mentioned above) along with another new company called Archangel, have color map systems in the prototype stage. Of course, you can assemble a color system using a GPS sensor, moving map software, and a color laptop or notebook PC, but while this type of setup has certain advantages, an all-in-one panel-mounted system is neater and more convenient.

With their incomparable graphic position information, moving maps are deservedly growing in popularity, and they will be a "must" in future receivers. At first, many of them may still be monochrome, but look at what happened with weather radar systems: the original models were monochrome and today they are all color. Incidentally, Eventide's color display (along with most radar units, and TV sets as well) utilizes cathode ray tube technology. This will be supplanted by LCD active matrix color, which draws less current, is a lot cooler, and can be manufactured in depths of only an inch or so. LCD color displays are used today in some corporate and commercial avionics (as well as upper-end laptop and notebook computers), but they are presently more expensive than CRTs.

Collision Avoidance:

As pilots, we are concerned with colliding with two types of objects: those on the ground, such as terrain and man-made structures, and those in the air-mostly other aircraft. GPS equipment can vastly reduce both types of risk. Ground objects are the easier, because their locations can be plotted and embedded in a receiver's database. Then, since the receiver knows where you are, including your approximate altitude, it can alert you when you are in proximity of a mountain, TV tower, etc. In fact, Arnav presently offers such a system, the MFD 5000, but since it takes up a pretty sizable amount of panel real estate, it's not for everybody. As for collision avoidance with other aircraft, eventually we can expect to be using a plane-to-plane system called Automatic Dependent Surveillance, which will utilize on-board GPS equipment that will continuously broadcast its position to other similarly equipped aircraft. Obviously, the effectiveness of this system will be directly related to how many aircraft will have the equipment on board.

GPS Attitude Indicator:

Someday the gyro-operated attitude indicator may be a thing of the past. Experiments are in progress using GPS sensors on various parts of the airplane for attitude information. For example, the equipment would know if you were in a left bank because your left wing would have a lower GPS altitude than your right wing. That's an oversimplification, and keep your present attitude indicator in good repair, because this development has a way to go.

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Well, that's our glimpse into the future, soundly based on known technology. There'll be more to come, so stay tuned.