Cockpit Tech Convergence? Sort Of

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Remember five years ago when convergence was the buzz word among techno futurists? The idea was that technological development was drifting toward products that would be all-in-one appliances. You'd surf the Web on your TV and watch movies on your phone. You can actually do those things, but I note with some irony that on a business trip, I still carry a laptop, an iPad and an iPhone because the iPad can't edit video, the computer can't make a phone call on the fly and the iPhone is a lousy e-reader. So convergence turned out to be just another empty idea that really described how companies would sell us ever more expensive gadgets ruthlessly designed to not be the all-in-one appliance.

Still, little pockets of meaningful convergence persist and I saw a couple of examples at the AEA show in Washington last week. One has to do with corporate convergence, the other gadget convergence. The corporate version is avionics companies doing developmental deals with rivals or at least finding projects of common interest. Aspen is working with Avidyne and Bendix/King, for instance, and many of the iPad app developers work with hardware manufacturers or retailers to develop products. Sporty's and Foreflight, for instance, collaborated on a new ADS-B box and Guardian will make its clever combination CO detector/Bluetooth product compatible with all of the major tablet navigation apps. There are more such deals in the works, including a big one you'll hear about later this year.

Speaking of tablets and especially the iPad, development in this segment is so robust with so many players that I wonder what kind of legs it has for some of the players. More and more applications are being developed to help us plan, quantify, record, examine and analyze that which all of us seem to be doing ever less of: actually flying airplanes. It's almost as if the airplane has become a 3-D conveyance for moving an iPad from point A to point B. The actual act of slipping the surly bonds is merely incidental. One wonders if it will become unnecessary.

In the opening session of AEA, the association's lifetime achievement award winner, Paul Ryan, wryly noted that we've come so far with avionics that we've lost the thrill of actually becoming lost once in a while. To that, I'd add the tendency to prefer virtual reality over real reality. Do we still look out the window when crossing the Mississippi?

The impact of these developments looks to be far reaching in that narrow but important segment of the market related to product development. Little noted at Sun 'n Fun was Garmin's release of a new product called Garmin Pilot. This app started as a simple cellphone flightplanner/weather getter called MyCast and has now morphed into full-up navigation program to rival ForeFlight and WingX. Besides being a new product in an intensely competitive market, it's also a tacit acknowledgement by Garmin that tablets are chewing into the dedicated GPS portable market. Does that mean we won't see any more new portables? Not really, says Garmin's Jim Alpiser in this podcast from AEA.

Is he right? For the short term future, yes, because even the best tablet apps are compromised by either physical limitations of the tablet itself or by application limitations. While this will—and is—improving with each new iteration, a certain percentage of buyers will, in a vote for anti-convergence, go with a dedicated device. On trips, I still carry a Garmin nuvi because the tablet or phone apps I've tried haven't worked quite as well or been as easy to use. I was recently riding with someone using a Droid app to navigate. It got us there, but the routing was absurdly circuitous. Having said that, the apps are improving rapidly enough that I'm sure I'll land on one that works. But not yet.

On the avionics front, it's obvious what the next round of products might be. Guardian's Bluetooth device points the way. It broadcasts GPS position data from a panel-mount GPS via Bluetooth. Received wirelessly by a tablet, this powers the moving map for navigation. So I'd expect to see some inexpensive comm radios with this capability, probably with ADS-B weather as an add-on. If these can be done less expensively than full-blown in-panel mapcomms, that might not be convergence, but it could be progress on holding the cost of flying somewhat in check.

Comments (15)

Link this stuff to a pair of Google glasses, and you've got a full-color heads-up display - for the price of a high-end cell phone. With autonomous aircraft coming, we could be witnessing the emergence of the last generation of electronics that includes a human pilot anywhere in the loop. Our own Air Force is leading the way...

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | April 9, 2012 7:01 AM    Report this comment

Paul: I am still somewhat reserved about 'one device does everything'. When I travel for business, I still carry a computer, Droid, external drive, camera, etc. The primary reason for this is I cannot afford to be delayed because of a single-point failure which would result from relaying on one device doing everything.

Also liked your comment about the Nuvi. I have used one for years and with the lifetime map update find it to be very reliable at least 96% of the time (on occasion I still get that odd address or location it cannot find - go figure.)

Posted by: Richard Norris | April 9, 2012 7:14 AM    Report this comment

Was watching a program the other night where a commercial aircraft lost two engines and the damage done by those engines exploding overwhelmed the computer and it said good bye. The pilots all four of them (two were on board testing/checking the pilots)had to learn how to fly the aeroplane. Hopefully the software for what we put in the GA aircraft does not go to that length.

I travel with a 496 Garmin, a Laptop and a Cell phone. The Garmin so that I can check I'm on course, the laptop is for work when I get to the destination and the cell phone to have communications. Would be a bit funny to have an iPad or laptop up to my ear to talk to people and although the cell is more a smart-phone its too small to do serious work on it (the keys are so small I always get the wrong letters and my sight ain't that good anymore and I struggle to read the messages).

My tuppence worth.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | April 9, 2012 8:22 AM    Report this comment

Some of this "convergence" stuff is getting to the point of ... well ... ridiculous. Walking around Sun-n-Fun's vendor hangars, I noted someone selling voice recognition equipment so you could TALK to your new Garmin boxes. It wasn't bad enough that we now have to "feel" the new Garmin boxes up, now they want us to talk to 'em ... I don't think so. I fly for F U N ... not to run a computer. Having a GPS onboard is absolutely wonderful but at some point, flying is about enjoyment and recreation and experience and not becoming some sort of nerd figuring new wayt to hook everything together via WiFi and Bluetooth and RS-232 and having all your 'computers' talking together. Seeing some of the LSA's with instrument panels that airliners would have loved to have 10 years ago is -- likewise -- ridiculous. They're already overpriced and with all that unnecessary equipment ... prices only get worse. With ADS-B looming, I don't see a lot of "action" on that end of the spectrum ... only with display devices and iPads which most people will never fully master. Pilots will forget what dead reckoning and pilotage and the enjoyment of aviation is all about. Oh well ... progress (sigh).

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 9, 2012 9:36 AM    Report this comment

Now that I think about it, iPads are becoming the de facto display of choice. This is great. A ~$500 non-TSO'ed display is allowed in my C172 cockpit (and in airliners as an EFB) but I can't legally hard install a Dynon Skyview to update my panel's six-pack of steam guages. If I want to update my panel, I have to spend well north of $10K for TSO'ed stuff when all I really need is a Skyview box.
Someone in AEA needs to be talking to the FAA to get them off their instransigent position and allow this sort of installation.

On the new EAA blog site, I recently saw some sort of unsigned "Proposal" to the small aircraft ARC to allow a "non-commercial" use category under 14 CFR Part 23 for currently certificated airplanes. Along with the recent AOPA/EAA proposal to create a recreational pilot subset for pilots, this idea would -- likewise -- create a new recreational re-designation for the simple airplanes the recreational pilots would fly. In effect, it would be tacit recognition that not everyone is flying hard IFR for business in their Skyhawks. I am certain there are a LOT more certificated airplanes out there than E-AB or LSA that would be a potential market for AEA members. I urge everyone to go to the EAA website and check out this proposal which -- as I said -- is unsigned. We can only hope that this is a serious proposal.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 9, 2012 10:04 AM    Report this comment

Having just become a newly certificated flight instructor, one of the big emphasis they used during my training is that I must "do as I say" to set a good example to my students. And one of the biggest things too many of us fail to do is spend most of our time looking outside the aircraft. I knew I wasn't spending as much time as I should in looking outside, but I'm even more aware of this now.

But what is it I'm so busy looking at inside the aircraft? No, it's not the flight instruments, but that darned GPS moving map display. I'm instrument rated, current, and proficient, but almost all of my flying is done in VMC. As such, there really isn't any reason to be looking at the GPS because I can see everything I need to see to determine my position.

I think all this fancy new avionics equipment is great, but none of it is really doing much to improve safety for VMC conditions, because there isn't much need to be using it. In IMC, absolutely, because by definition the weather is poor enough that flight by visual reference is difficult-to-impossible, so you're going to be almost all the time looking inside the cockpit.

So circling back to the original topic of this discussion, cockpit convergence really isn't necessary or even beneficial unless you're flying in hard IMC.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | April 9, 2012 2:25 PM    Report this comment

I read somewhere that the present SATNAV system is falling apart and there is no intention of replacing it. If that actually happening then all the flashing gizmos will be useless methinks.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | April 9, 2012 3:18 PM    Report this comment

A friend recently flew (commercial) to Europe. The lady in the window seat looked out and commented: "It looks just like Google Earth!".

Posted by: DON MACKENZIE | April 9, 2012 3:29 PM    Report this comment

Larry makes a great point about the $500 display. There is a huge price difference between the Dynon boxes and a certified glass panel. The difference lies in the certification costs. Now, there is a lot that can potentially go wrong with all the bits and bytes inside those glass panels! So, certification is not a bad thing especially if that box is going to guide you through IMC! However, I don't think the Dynon boxes are doing a bad job for the Experimental folks and I'd like to see the FAA address this for part 23.

Posted by: STEVE BOWLING | April 10, 2012 9:31 AM    Report this comment

Rethinking again … let me take off my airplane owner and pilot caps and put on my A&P cap. When I sign off my C172 100 hr inspection in prep for IA review, I always add the statement “This aircraft for use in VFR conditions only until FAR 91.411 pitot/static check has been completed.” In effect, I have legally limited my operation to VFR flight only.

FAR 91.205 states what equipment is required for VFR flight and nowhere do you see Horizons, DG’s, VSI’s or even turn and banks indicators. Only altimeter, airspeed and compass plus fuel and engine guages are required for day VFR. Extrapolating, why then shouldn’t I be able to install a non-TSO’ed Dynon Skyview box and maybe keep the horizon since I have room? Answer, because of the FAA. Just try and get a field approval to install a Dynon Skyview in your certificated airplane. Or, mount an iPad in the center of your panel.

As I see it, if I have met the minimum equipment requirements for day and night VFR equipment in my airplane, I ought to be able to install a Dynon box. The whole thing could be adjudicated if the FAA wrote an advisory circular (AC) stating something to the effect that non-TSO’ed equipment may be installed in addition to required TSO’ed instruments and cross-checks of data should be performed in-flight. They've already done this with respect to extra lighting.

AEA members ought to be demanding this from the FAA. They're missing a lot of business.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 10, 2012 12:57 PM    Report this comment

Convergence means you can play flight sim while you fly. It's not flying...

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 11, 2012 12:01 AM    Report this comment

'It wasn't bad enough that we now have to "feel" the new Garmin boxes up, now they want us to talk to 'em ... '

Maybe it's a techno-nerd way of attempting to keep the romance alive in flying...Check carefully next purchase of one of these gadgets for a cigarette in the packaging...

Posted by: David Miller | April 11, 2012 1:59 PM    Report this comment

Paul B. After my time in the USAF my first private sector job was being a systems engineer for minicomputer sales. At that time the "Holy Grail" for the minicomputer industry was the "Paperless office". The IBM PC hadn't been developed yet, and personal computers had audio cassettes for mass storage.

Today I doubt 1 person in 10 could even tell you what a minicomputer was and we are still trying to achieve the paperless office. The health care industry is actually starting to use electronic medical records, but the privacy concerns and other government intervention prevent sharing of these records between medical offices. There is still a lot of paper in any office.

I suspect the same sort of thing will happen to the convergence of electronic gizmos for aviation. There will be small bits of progress, but the dedicated aviation GPS portable will still be a good choice 30 years from now and people like me will never remove their portable from the plane to use in the rental car on a trip (as Garmin is trying to sell in their expensive portable GPS devices). We will carry the consumer grade portable GPS in our flight bag because it works just fine and saves dissembling our airplane so we can find the hotel.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | April 12, 2012 6:00 AM    Report this comment

Paul, I am at the end of my career as a commercial pilot. I now fly a CL-605 over most of the Western world. In the last ten years I have noticed and been disturbed by the young F/Os I have brought into the corporate world of flying. They are wizard at programming an FMS, but very seldom know where they are. And, more importantly, do not think it necessary. There is no doubt that the dependability of avionics is closing on 100%. Still, it is unlikely to ever get there. I believe it incumbent on me to know where I am and where to go at all times. I have not yet learned the magic words to get this across to people who were playing intense video games when they were three years old. They simply accept what the screen tells them and believe it will never fail. They may be right.
I recently made the initial flight in an A Model powered Pietenpol Aircamper with no brakes and a tail skid. Luddite that I am, that is my kind of flying. When I retire, there will be no GPS in my cockpit. That is what sectionals and compasses are for.

Posted by: Barry Triplett | April 12, 2012 12:32 PM    Report this comment

Jeez, does anyone look outside anymore? 5,000 hrs. with no threat and on my first flight upon getting back into the air after a few years and "near miss"; the other guy still doesn't know! I was visiting the Grand Canyon the other day (a first) and a youngster was badgering his Dad for money to put in the telescope to look at canyon, whereupon Dad told him to "use your eyes". Very insightful I'd say.

Posted by: Terry Spugeon | April 12, 2012 9:20 PM    Report this comment

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