Q&A With ForeFlight's Tyson Weihs

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The apps market is a young, fast-paced, booming, and rapidly evolving segment of the aviation industry that isn't just transforming how pilots get information, it's starting to affect how manufacturers build their products.

Some of today's most popular apps include Garmin Pilot, WingX Pro, and ForeFlight, which produces popular flight planning and in-flight support apps for the iPad. We sat down this week with Tyson Weihs, the thirty-six-year-old co-founder of ForeFlight and asked how things are changing at his company, where they're headed, and why.

What's new with ForeFlight?

A lot is new. And in a few different areas. We've invested heavily in research and development over the past year. Some of our investments came to market this year along with the release of Stratus and ADS-B support. We made three technology and talent acquisitions, including a competitive app and its principal developer. We also made strategic investments in a stealth-mode cartography company that is working on some phenomenal technologies. Generally, we've made investments in key areas and platform technologies that we think are aligned with where we envision mobile aviation technologies are headed over the next two years.

It's all consistent with our goal of providing individual pilots information - regardless of the source - and the utilities they need to make them more productive and to delight them. We've expanded our content and coverage to include things like IFR area charts, VFR supplemental and flyway charts, chart legends, and terminal procedures from the NAV CANADA Restricted Canada Air Pilot publications. Since the FAA's processes are all geared towards print, re-purposing their content for mobile platforms has unique challenges. On the support end, we've continued to invest in our pilot support team, product videos, website, and blog as part of our desire to deliver what we term "Fanatical Pilot Support" to customers.

Specific to features, another thing we're proud of is the addition of route selection. We've created a route advisor that helps you pick from a variety of choices including airway routings, preferred routings, terminal enroute control routes, previously flown or assigned ATC routings, as well as utilities that help pilots select altitudes based on our global winds aloft model data. Then there's the runway proximity advisor we worked on - utilizing technology developed by MITRE and sponsored by the FAA - in the hopes of reducing runway incursions. Some of these things improve productivity. Others improve safety.

We've also seen an explosion of interest in bringing tablets into the simulation training environment as part of students' normal curriculum. So we're working more with education and simulation companies like Redbird, X-Plane, ELITE, and FRASCA. As an example, ForeFlight is now integrated into the ELITE King Air simulator at Arizona State. And we've seen growth in our educational license program. Universities and flight schools this year started integrating iPads into their training, from UND to Embry-Riddle, K-State, Purdue, Western Michigan, ASU, and a few dozen others that have singed on to our educational license program. ... It's a way for universities to offer discounted access to ForeFlight for their students.

How many installs are you up to?

(Laughing) We've had more installs than there are pilots on the planet at this point. That's devices, of course. We keep the number close to the vest, but it's big. It's large enough that we now have outside manufacturers coming to us. They're asking us to help tailor their products to better interface with our apps and meet the needs of our customer base. It puts us in an interesting position.

Looking ahead, what new features can pilots expect?

That gets back to our acquisitions. We acquired technologies that include features like track up, 2D and 3D terrain ... often referred to as "synthetic vision" ... . Basically, the way we work, we prioritize the things customers have asked for most, as well as those new things that we think will improve productivity, or remove complexity. It would be appropriate to expect things we've acquired to appear in our products, but we're also pursuing advances in areas that can help pilots better understand how they fly. We'd like to utilize the iPad's ability to collect and analyze information. We're also excited by the possibilities created by the high quality, all-in-one, portable, "augmented avionics" boxes that are coming to market ... boxes that combine many features into one small portable. The capabilities of those boxes should allow us to do things that just haven't been done before in aviation.

How are customers responding to your ADS-B interface?

The response has exceeded our expectations. With Stratus [a portable ADS-B receiver released in April, 2012] we focused on building an integrated solution, and that's resonated well. Today, we only support the Stratus product. These portable devices are not easy to build, and device makers have had some problems trying to bring solutions to market. Stratus was a joint development project that brought us together with both Appareo and Sporty's. It's possible we'll support other solutions in the future, but it's new tech and so far we've focused on the quality of the solution versus a quantity of supported devices.

Stratus allows you to access the FIS-B [flight information services broadcast] information. Your getting things like regional and national nexrad, live TFR and special use airspace updates, metars and TAFs, winds aloft, airmets and sigmets ... most of the strategic flight information you need to execute a flight. And we're seeing adoption across segments of aviation from general aviation to commercial, which are generally evaluating the product and using it on a test basis.

Specific to device manufacturers, is ForeFlight more involved with reacting to developing technology or the creation of new technology, these days?

That's an interesting question. Because of our market share today, a lot of companies come to us with ideas for new products. So we get to see what people are thinkng about and where the market is trending. Some of it is interesting, but not really practical for a portable system like the iPad. Portable AHRS is an example of that. That's interesting technology that is just emerging, so we're approaching it very cautiously. It's easy to get in trouble, here. For example, when we looked at the state of the art in portable AHRS technology we determined it was difficult for most pilots to consistently calibrate the units and how also that, under the right conditions, iit can be easy for them to get out of calibration. There are other variables, too. In the end, it means that ... for now ... we feel the display of pitch and attitude information from portable devices is potentially dangerous. This is one area that will continue to advance, we think, but is still in the experimental stages.

 Overall, on the technological development end, what's neat is that we're now in a position where we have the ability to shape what some of these companies are working on based on our customer needs ... because that's a group they want to target. It's been really exciting to look at the innovation that's coming down the pipe and select what most pilots will benefit from.

Has the introduction of the iPad Mini brought any changes to ForeFlight?

We haven't had any adaptation issues. Apple had the foresight to make their iPad screen dimensions consistent. There's really nothing we have to do in that regard; the iOS handles the scaling automatically. There may be some things we'll do to enhance screen utilization on the physically smaller platform... . Really, the question we get most often from users is 'can I run my Mini and iPad simulataneously?' And we made a decision a long time ago for people to power two units from one subscription so that one could serve as a redundant backup. The smaller unit is a lot more convenient for a lot of pilots and we have a long blog post with screenshots that addresses mounting options. Basically, the Mini's form factor means the iPad isn't an enormous obstacle anymore. Now its footprint is more comparable to a [Garmin] 696.

What do you think ForeFlight will look like in two years?

I think we'll be, culturally, very similar ... that is, focused on building high-performing, elegant solutions, backed by strong support. But we'll be even more refined and efficient at what we do. We'll have added things to our offerings that help pilots end to end - from preflight to postflight. We'll be providing a broader range of services underpinned by our desire to keep software elegant, while providing exceptionally high performance and further improving situational awareness. We'll always stay focused on the individual pilot but we'll aim to enhance services for growing segments like business and military aviation. We also plan to help all our pilots record and share their information aside from just being more productive executing their flight. (Laughs) I guess that's a lot of marketing-speak, but that's the plan.

Specifically on synthetic vision and track up, when are those coming?

Well, as I mentioned, we acquired a company that had those capabilities, so it's probably not unreasonable to expect such features. With everything we do, we want our features to reflect a certain style and quality, and that takes time. We also never pre-announce features because the path in aviation is littered with broken delivery promises and we want to be different in that respect. Specific to "synthetic vision," when we talk to our customers they want it as an option, but it's not something they use on every flight. It's fun, has entertainment value, but they find themselves using it infrequently. Other features that most pilots use on most flights have taken priority to date. None of those features are off the table, though. We're just aiming for a specific style and performance bar.

What about incorporating more outside information like, say, StormScope?

We display lightning info today, but it's sourced from the ground. Moving forward, because of rapid adoption of ADS-B devices, the FAA is working to deliver additional content and lightning is one of those items. As far as integrating with lightning hardware ... or any single purpose hardware, really ... it's complicated. Without having a common and open data bus on the plane, it's hard for an ipad to connect with standalone hardware devices individually. So, if StormScope is the example, I could see it happening for us when all these devices are connected on a common data bus. But we wouldn't likely connect to a StormScope independent of that.

I think we're in the early days in developing communication between avionics and portables. Aspen broke ground there with their CG100, delivering information wirelessly. At ForeFlight, we'd look at connecting to aggregators that could bring information from multiple outside devices into the application. And we might partner with companies to enable that.

What about Android platforms?

We're still focussed on IOS devices. The challenge with android is finding a mix of different devices that allow you to build an application, efficiently, that covers a wide range of platforms. It's a standardization issue. I think we're getting closer to a point where there is more standardization, but on the tablet side of things there's still a lot of fragmentation and a small number of pilots using android. We've elected to do the best we can with the most popular device for pilots. We're not against Android. We just need to approach it prudently from a business perspective.

Are there any outside issues affecting your business that you'd like to address?

After some pushback, AeroNav is back at it with respect to its cost recovery proposal. They're seeking to push forward to create a per pilot digital user fee. We're looking at that initiative and we'll look forward to talking with you about what we're doing to help fight that for pilots.