Hi-Tech For GA: What's Real (And Certified) Right Now
Enter: Synthetic Vision...
AVweb has flown with Chelton's Electronic Flight Information System and seen the future (of aircraft navigation, anyway) and it is nifty ... and pricey. Chelton has recently been granted a technical standard order (TSO) for its synthetic vision. "It's a new way to fly," said Randy Shimon, the head of sales for Chelton and demonstration pilot for AVweb's demonstration flight yesterday. The system integrates radar and GPS signals with a remarkably accurate geographical database to give pilots a virtual depiction of nearly everything they would see if they ever bother to look out the window again. You'll still have to look outside for other aircraft ... and elsewhere to fill the $75,750 system cost (plus 150 hours for in$tallation). "Some people say they can't believe how expensive it is and some people can't believe how cheap it is," Shimon said. Of course, PCFlightSystems showed us a portable non-certified product loaded with PCAvionics MountainScope software that together offer remarkably similar features for roughly $73,000 less. Chelton's screen is split with blue for the sky and brown for terra firma. Overlaid on the ground is a visible but unobtrusive grid that depicts the ground topography, cross-referenced through the GPS from a topographical database. Over table-flat Wisconsin, the grid lines stayed obediently straight, but in mountainous terrain they bulge and twist into a 3-D view of the outside world. Obstacles like transmission towers are color-coded according to the threat they pose to the oncoming aircraft. Audible warnings are sounded if things are looking especially tight. The terrain database is said to be accurate to within 12 feet and the obstacle information is updated every 28 days. Navigation data is updated in the standard 56-day cycles.
Shimon said the system has been flight-tested more than 5,000 hours and has undergone rigorous examination by the FAA. It's being installed in aircraft in Alaska as part of the Capstone Program, a real-life experiment aimed at using technology to reduce the grim terrain-related accident record there. As many aviation innovations do, the synthetic vision system started life as an uncertified package for kit-built aircraft. More than 100 are flying and Shimon said the only difference between the certified system and those in Lancairs and other high-end homebuilts is the FAA stamp of approval. The Chelton system is STC'd for more than 600 types of aircraft but being on the cutting edge has a price. The hardware, which includes two screens and all the required sensors, is $75,750 and it will take about 150 hours to install. The price, of course, is relative to the value of the airplane and the deepness of its owners' pockets. But Shimon said it's impossible to put a price on the added measure of safety the system provides.
Another player in the datalink field, WSI, announced that it has obtained FAA certification for its Inflight AV200. The WSI system uses geosynchronous satellites to continuously broadcast weather data to the cockpit. Cost of the certified system is $4,995, plus a monthly charge. WSI says its weather will eventually be displayable on various kinds of screens, with UPSAT's MX20 multi-function display being the leading contender. Contact www.wsi.com for more information.
The world of aircraft datalink continues to lurch forward although no clear leader in the field has emerged. At last year's AirVenture, a company called WXWorx appeared, proposing to provide weather data via XMSatellite's wide-area satellite broadcast system. This offering appears to be maturing as WxWorx was demonstrating a portable, non-certified XM data receiver that will receive and display a range of proprietary weather products on electronic flight bags or tablet-type computers. For a price of $600 to $700, WXWorx provides the receiver -- a unit that looks like a puffed up CD player -- and the necessary software to process and display the data. Monthly fees for the service start at $49.99. WXWorx partner Heads Up Technology plans to offer a certified receiver by the end of 2003. It's expected to sell for below $4,000 and a version of it will be dual channel, allowing both weather data and entertainment channels. See www.wxworx.com for more.
Imagine getting real-time traffic and weather information in the cockpit for about $6,000 and no monthly fee. That's the promise of the Universal Access Transceiver and its attendant systems being developed by UPS Aviation Technologies (UPSAT). The radio uplinks weather and radar traffic information from FAA-financed (hence free to pilots) ground stations, and displays the data on an existing cockpit display. The system uses cellular technology on a protected frequency range that provides plenty of bandwidth, said UPSAT spokesman Doug Helton, at AirVenture this week. "It's a bundled set of benefits," he said. There will be other long-term benefits of the system as more airplanes are equipped with it. Planes with the transceiver can interrogate and transfer data from one to another, providing aircraft identification and position data for collision avoidance outside of radar range. This Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system is being installed in Embry-Riddle University's training aircraft so pilots can keep tabs on each other in the often-crowded patterns and practice areas at their training sites in Florida and Arizona. The system will also allow university staff to monitor the activities of all their aircraft on a visual display. Embry-Riddle will start using the system by the end of the year and the FAA will start installing their uplink stations at airports on the East Coast early in 2004.