Roll Your Own Electronic Flight Bag

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Overwhelmed by paper? Tired of buying and carrying pounds of approach charts for a cross-country trip when you'll be landing at only a few airports along the way? John Ruley has found some new solutions for when you're ready to bring your charts into the digital age.

Do you own or use a tablet or electronic flight bag? Our sister publication, Aviation Consumer, is doing a review of these products and would like to hear from you. Contact the magazine here.

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from Cessna Owner Magazine by permission from Cessna Owner Organization -- 888-MYCessna.

Avionics

A few years ago I spent a vacation flying myself from Modesto, Calif., to Athens, Ohio, and back. Among the many steps required to prepare for that trip, one of the more complex was getting proper charts so that I could navigate across half the country both visually and on instruments. I wound up with a whole suitcase full of charts in addition to my regular flight bag. I had WAC charts and IFR low-altitude en-route charts for the entire route, about six volumes of approach plates, and either sectional or VFR terminal area charts for the places where I planned to land. About halfway through my trip, all the IFR charts expired, and I had to buy new ones.

Contrast that with my friend Jerry Rogers, who regularly flies from one end of the country to the other. He manages it all with an amazing gizmo called an electronic flight bag (EFB), a computer equipped with software that provides the equivalent of most (but not all) the charts I carried. He still carries two loose-leaf binders that contain IFR en-route charts (which are not yet completely replaced by an electronic equivalent) and copies of the approach plates for airports he plans to use; but that's a lot less paper than I had to carry.

Until now, the catch to EFBs has been high cost: typically $4,000, with the necessary software and accessories. Last year, however, a completely new type of computer appeared that's ideally suited for use in the cockpit: a Tablet PC. I've found that it's possible to run off-the-shelf flight planning and electronic charting software on a Tablet PC. In effect, I've rolled my own EFB -- and if you're comfortable with PC technology, you can too.

Tablet PC Hardware

Motion Computing M1200 Tablet PC (23 Kb)
Motion Computing M1200 Tablet PC (click photos for larger view)

Tablet PCs are Windows XP-based mobile computers that can accept input either from a conventional keyboard or using an electronic stylus, which interacts with an active digitizer built into the display. Various vendors offer Tablet PCs in convertible styles (in which the keyboard folds out of the way when not needed) or as a slate, which has no built-in keyboard (one can be plugged into a USB port when required). In my opinion, the slate-type tablets are best for cockpit use. They're made by a variety of vendors, including Fujitsu, HP, Motion Computing, NEC and Viewsonic, among others.

Physically, a slate-type Tablet PC will measure 8 to 10 inches wide by 10 to 12 inches long by around 1 inch deep, and it will weigh around three pounds. That's not much larger (although heavier) than most lap boards. They all tend to get warm during continuous operation. Kevin Lockhart of Prophet Systems (which used to sell specialized EFBs -- but abandoned that market when Tablet PCs became available) recommends using a couple of beanbags secured with Velcro to insulate your knees. I haven't tried that yet but it sounds like a workable solution.

The top of the Tablet PC will have a 10- or 12-inch (diagonal) LCD display, and several buttons. The aforementioned electronic stylus will fit in a slot in the unit. For use in-flight, you'll want to secure the stylus with a string -- if you drop it, you won't have a way to interact with the computer.

I've tried both HP's Compaq TC-1000 and Motion Computing's M1200 in my airplane, but preferred the M1200. It has a larger (12") display that -- to my surprise -- turned out to be contrasty enough to use in-flight, even in direct sunlight (polarized sunglasses help). It's housed in a one-piece magnesium alloy case that should provide excellent durability. This unit is also being evaluated by the flight department of a major U.S. airline for in-cockpit use.

On the ground, you can plug in the keyboard and use the M1200 as an odd-looking (but quite functional) desktop PC. It has a 933MHz Intel Pentium-III processor, 256 MB RAM, and a 20-GB hard disk. It costs about $2,200, including an optional docking station with a DVD-ROM drive.

In addition to the Tablet PC itself, you'll need an auto/air adapter, which most Tablet PC vendors sell -- this will allow you to power the Tablet PC from the aircraft electrical system and save battery power (which typically provides about three hours operation on a charge) for use only in an emergency.

Finally, you'll want to provide a GPS input to your Tablet PC -- I did this using a $29 serial-to-USB adapter cable, and the Garmin GPS-195 unit that I already own. There are a variety of PC-Card GPSs designed specifically to be used with a computer that would probably work just as well (and not clutter the cockpit with extra cables).

Software

Flight Map on Tablet PC (221 Kb)
Flight Map on Tablet PC

Turning an M1200 (or any other Tablet PC) into a full-fledged EFB requires adding electronic flight planning and charting software. Most purpose-built EFBs use Jeppesen's FliteDeck or FliteMap -- which run just as well on a Tablet PC.

FliteDeck provides all of Jeppesen's instrument approach plates (and graphical SIDs and STARs) in electronic form, plus some unique features that are available if a GPS is attached, including a nearest-airport function and a GPS overlay (which puts a pointer showing your aircraft position directly on the approach plate).

Unfortunately, FliteDeck is expensive -- over $900 for a U.S. annual subscription. A cheaper option is available to AOPA members: Download NOS charts in Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF), for viewing on your Tablet PC. This can be done from the airport directory section of AOPA's members-only Web page, and is free (aside from AOPA membership and connect-time charges). Or you can purchase NOS charts for the entire U.S. on a CD-ROM from Flight Prep.

For IFR use, you'll still have to use paper en route charts (which are included in Jeppesen's FliteDeck subscription) as no vendor currently provides them in electronic form. VFR pilots, however, have an excellent alternative to paper charts in Jeppesen's FliteStar and FliteMap. This provides a complete database, including terrain data, airways, navaids and airports, which is drawn on-screen. It can present the resulting electronic chart in US or European sectional format, or in a high- or low-altitude IFR en route format, or even in a format designed to look like a Flight Management System (FMS). FliteMap also provides outstanding flight-planning functions, and is capable of integrating DUATS weather information on the chart. Unfortunately, it does not as yet provide all the information that's required for IFR use.

Since Tablet PCs are Windows XP-based computers, you can add any other Windows-based software you wish. Flight Prep's flight planning software would be one good option, another would be in-flight weather (using a satellite receiver or other in-flight data link), which is available from a variety of sources.

Legal for Use in-flight?

Approach Chart on Tablet PC (146 Kb)
Approach Chart on Tablet PC

Now for the big question: Is it legal to use something like this in an airplane? For those of us operating under Part 91, the answer is quite definitely yes!

The FAA has issued guidance for EFBs in Advisory Circular 120-76a. Provided an EFB device is not permanently mounted, it is considered a portable electronic device (PED) and is legal for use, provided the operator determines that it doesn't interfere with the aircraft's navigation or communication systems -- and in my testing, I saw no problem there.

While the FARs require pilots to carry current charts, there's no requirement for them to be printed on paper: Provided the computer software being used can provide the same information as that on paper, it's legal to use the computer. Whether it's wise to use only the computer-based data is another matter. Jerry Rogers, who has been doing this for some time, prints out paper copies of the approach plates for his departure, intended destination and alternate, which strikes me as extremely wise. Jerry carries a lightweight printer with him, and that's an option that might be worth a bit of extra weight (and bulk) for pilots using EFBs on long-range flights.

For Part 121 and 135 operators, field approval is required for use of EFBs; see AC 120-76a for details.

A Revolution In the Making

The uses I've described so far for an EFB are impressive enough, but I think the long-range implications of this technology are breathtaking. Today, there's a huge (and growing) disparity between the cockpit technology available to pilots of recent aircraft, and that available to the older airplanes which make up the majority of the GA fleet. Any new business jet or twin-prop (and for that matter, many high-end singles) will come with a "glass cockpit" featuring one or more large Multi-Function Display (MFD) screens. The MFDs are frequently used to provide a GPS moving-map presentation which may include terrain, flight-path info, airways, navaids, etc.

In the older airplanes that make up the bulk of the GA fleet, there's no panel space for an MFD -- and even if that space could be made, the cost would be prohibitive. By carrying a Tablet PC aboard, configured as an EFB with appropriate software, you can have a 10- or 12-inch MFD -- in your lap. And it will continue to operate, for up to three hours, even if the aircraft suffers a total electrical failure. It's completely portable, and can be moved from one airplane to the next without an expensive new installation. And on the ground it's a completely functional PC.

For the vast majority of GA pilots, this may be the best way to bring color moving map technology into the cockpit -- and to do so at a reasonable price.

As I write, I'm beginning to plan another trip back east -- this time to Oshkosh, for the 2003 AirVenture (and annual Cessna Owner Organization / Piper Owner Society meeting). I am thinking very seriously about using an EFB this time -- at least, for the VFR portions of the flight. Just like Jerry Rogers, I'll take paper IFR en route charts, and print out approach plates for the primary and alternate airports I plan to use on each leg; but that will amount to just one binder in addition to the computer itself -- and I'd need to take a computer with me anyway (that's how these articles are written). If some of my charts expire part-way through the trip, I'll only need an internet connection to get revised ones. That sure beats a suitcase full of paper charts!