For at least the last five years and probably longer than that, the retrofit autopilot market has been moribund. Autoflight systems have gotten so expensive that only the most dedicated buyers were willing to part with $20K or north to install one.
AirVenture 2017 seems determined to turn that trend around in more or less one day. As of the opening day of the show, we count no fewer than six new autopilot systems; seven if you consider Dynon’s announced approval of the Skyview HDX for certified aircraft. Counting up here, that’s two systems from Garmin, one each from TruTrak and Trio, one from BendixKing and one from Genesys Aerosystems, formerly STEC. These are in various states of approval for certified aircraft. You can read our coverage and videos on these systems for the technical details, but all of the products are aimed at the retrofit market. Surveying this embarrassment of riches, one might be forgiven for concluding there’s suddenly a vast unsatisfied demand for autopilots.
Excuse me, but fat chance. Flight activity continues to decline and although there may be a pulse in student starts, I don’t sense a latent desire for autopilot systems among our readers and viewers. So what’s going on? A couple of things. The big driver is what happened at Sun ‘n Fun in 2016 when EAA and Dynon paired up to announce STC approvals for the Dynon D10A EFIS, a heretofore experimental- and LSA-only product. That opened the door for TruTrak and Trio to follow the same path for their autopilots, products that are perfectly capable and cost a fraction of what certified autopilots have traditionally cost.
Second, without the onerous burden of overly restrictive FAA cert requirements, these companies could effectively leverage their close-to-the-bone development economics into the world of certified airplanes. TruTrak doesn’t have Garmin’s team of engineers, it has Andrew Barker’s determined creativity. The same is true for Dynon, which competes against Garmin with a smaller development team. Garmin, by the way, had no choice but to respond in kind, thus its announcement last week that it will pursue AMLs for its experimental line and add to that a mid-level autopilot for higher-performance airplanes.
Whether all these companies will find demand worthy of the R&D effort is an unknown, but my guess is they’ll find some. Today’s question of the week asks this very question, so you tell us.
Demand or not, however, this is a huge plus for anyone who has been shopping for an autopilot system or even considering it. A year ago, you had not a single choice for under $20,000. Now you’ve got a fat handful.
There’s another interesting development emerging from this trend. We didn’t make much of it, but Garmin also announced third-party autopilot support for its hot-selling G5 electronic gyro for a long list of older autopilots, including some real museum pieces. That means in addition to having the choice of several new autopilots with envelope protection, you can now nurse along an older one with a spiffy new e-gyro.
Think of it. That old 182 with the faded paint and bald tires you’ve been thinking of selling can be upgraded with state-of-the-art digital avionics. Won’t help the paint much, but at least it can fly itself with precision you never thought possible.