ADS-B In Gets Cheap(er)


Lost in the noisy shuffle of last week’s NBAA show was a news story that I think is significant for buyers interested in ADS-B In. Bad Elf is launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund development of new ADS-B portables that will be cheaper than what’s on the market now; as little as half the price of the more expensive portables and $200 less than the lowest-priced models now available. Hear the podcast here and read the story here.

Whenever disruptively priced products come into a mature market, that’s newsworthy and Bad Elf’s effort certainly is that. But there’s another aspect of this story that could be a tell on why ADS-B uptake is lagging and might provide clues about the decline of flight activity in general aviation. When I interviewed Bad Elf’s Brett Hackleman, he said that in preparing the company’s marketing plan, they discovered that only about 10 percent of active pilots have ADS-B In. Can that possibly be correct? I’d have guessed it’s higher, perhaps as much as 30 or 40 percent. But Bad Elf’s data is better than mine, which is basically just anecdotal reports from readers and pilots and conversations with vendors.

In a word, that’s pathetic market penetration given what I think is the price/value equation on portable ADS-B In. But it may also be silent commentary both on the poor job the FAA has done in promoting a program it sees as transformational for the national transportation system and the sad state of flight activity for whatever reasons. First the price/value.

Portable ADS-B In provides, free of user charges, an extensive suite of weather products including NEXRAD imagery. At the higher-price spectrum, the portables also include AHRS capability that will display an attitude indicator on a tablet suitable for backing up vacuum-driven iron gyros. Not that long ago, pilots were willing to pay hundreds to install the backup option with either redundant electrically driven iron gyros or backup vacuum pumps that did only one thing and might never be needed. Now, they can do the same with a low-cost ADS-B portable. And by low cost, I mean between $849 for the Dual XGPS190 and as much as $1400 for the Sagetech Clarity SV, plus other models priced between these. Bad Elf’s version will be priced at $449 for a full capability version, a substantial price breakthrough. The question is, will it expand the market much? Probably, but I’ll admit to being baffled that more pilots haven’t bought these things already.

In my view—and perhaps I’m not mainstream in this—at about a grand give or take, having real-time weather in the cockpit, plus the backup capability, is a bargain. The limited traffic capability portable ADS-B In provides is a plus, but personally, I don’t care much about that feature. Having said this, I don’t have portable ADS-B for the Cub because I rarely fly it far enough to need weather data that I can’t see out the window. But if I was flying any serious IFR over much distance at all I wouldn’t leave home without ADS-B In or datalink weather of some kind. It’s just too valuable a tool not to have and just not expensive.

So the fact that only 10 percent of active pilots see it this way suggests one or a combination of several things to me. One is that buyers still see $700 to $1000 for a portable as too much money; there’s no perceived value for the investment. Or perhaps pilots just aren’t flying trips where on-the-fly weather is a must-have or maybe would-be buyers just don’t understand ADS-B portable capabilities. I doubt that last point, but ADS-B is so confusing for many of us, that anything is possible. I’ve talked to many owners who just don’t want to think about ADS-B until the bitter end, when they have to equip with ADS-B Out. These owners don’t always have a clear understanding that ADS-B portables have nothing to do with the 2020 mandate.

And speaking of the mandate, I asked Bad Elf’s Hackleman if his price disruption model could be applied to certified ADS-B Out. But certified equipment is oranges to the portable’s apples and he couldn’t venture a guess. If such a thing were possible, it would likely require more investment than the $500,000 Bad Elf is seeking for its Kickstarter.

Flyer Fantasies

I used to visit the Outer Banks of North Carolina at least once a year, but now it’s every couple of years. I still take time to spend a few hours at the Wright National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, as I did last week.

I was shooting a video on the memorial and I was given unlimited access to the replica 1903 Flyer on display in the visitor center. It was superbly crafted for the 2003 centennial by Ken Hyde’s Wright Experience. While I was shooting, I couldn’t help but think how much I’d really like to fly the thing. The replica is airworthy, including a replica engine that ran before the aircraft was placed on display. But Harry Combs, who funded the replica, specified that it wouldn’t be flown since, in all likelihood, it would eventually crash if it did.

The 1903 Flyer, with just 11 HP, was barely capable of flight and needed a stiff headwind to get airborne. It was also dynamically unstable, something the Wrights hadn’t figured out at the time, although they did later on. If you wanted to fly the 1903 Flyer, you’d have to build your own.

And that has been done, both for the 1903 Flyer and the Wright B Flyer. One flyable version was built for the 2003 centennial celebration at Kill Devil Hills and famously failed to aviate. An organization called Wright B-Flyer Inc. constructed a B using a modern Lycoming and updated instruments and materials. It’s flown for exhibition. But if I were building one, I think I’d tilt toward the earlier model; hip-cradle-controlled wing warping sounds intriguing. The modern technology I’d apply would be electric motors in place of the single gasoline replica. With, say, 20 HP per side—a tiny motor by today’s standards—you’d quadruple the power and have enough payload for maybe 10 minutes worth of batteries. You’d have to improve the stability and put wheels on in order to use an ordinary runway. But that would still deliver the flavor of the original.

Of course, by the time I got through all this analysis, I’d probably realize that in the Cub, I already have an unstable, underpowered airplane. Maybe it would be easier to attach a hip cradle to the stick.