Autopilots Amok

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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. 

Comments (16)

Yes, flying private is still on decline, but also pilots are aging and some do welcome electronic flying frames ;-). There are a lot of old aircraft around with no autopilot and also quite some old autopilots no longer functional, due to expensive spare parts, so the market may be bigger than expected.

Now we see a crowd of digital autopilots in an affordable price range for the young blinkyblinky glasspilots to retrofit grandpas 172, the ones with no autopilot on budget, the ones with fading capability flying old tin buckets, the ones with higher demand for comfort on x-country, the little crowd overseas finally getting access to IR as the FAA did decades ago and so on.

Me personally would like to see a practical comparison, say of Trio vs TruTrak linked to typical equipment i.e. handheld GPS or what a GNS430 can serve for linked to them, on AVWeb and just to mention, I don't like envelope protection without a switch to cut it off.

Posted by: Markus M. | July 24, 2017 12:51 AM    Report this comment

"I don't like envelope protection without a switch to turn it off."
Which implies that there's a switch to turn it ON. This is where expectations get framed (and specifications get authored). When you turn on that switch, does your envelope protection provide critical-situation AVOIDANCE or critical-situation RECOVERY?
BIG difference, and a key factor in whether that switch exists or not.
Autonomy's a bitch.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | July 24, 2017 5:23 AM    Report this comment

Auto Pilots amok? I hope not. Just jokin'.

This is going the way of the AoA meters - flash in the pan. Perhaps because America's GA recognizes economic survival. I have two aircraft, both with S-Tec 30 ALTs and 430s - very good systems and reasonably priced for the era and an asset for advance flight training and the rental biz. However, I don't see a sustainable retrofit demand for the Toms, Pauls or Larrys.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 24, 2017 6:38 AM    Report this comment

I think more important than the new-found low-cost autopilot options is the trend of finally allowing experimental avionics (which have been just fine for IFR-certified experimentals flying in the same airspace as all the certified avionics) installed in certified aircraft. I don't think any one specific approval will suddenly boost GA, but more low-cost options is always a good thing.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | July 24, 2017 7:38 AM    Report this comment

I have, for years, been flying with an AOA indicator - the single most important instrument on my panel - and have been waiting for a reasonably priced high-performance autopilot for the same interval. So I will be one of those to do a "For Sure - this is what I've been waiting for" installation. And next, can we retrofit an extra 20 HP?

Posted by: DANIEL SPITZER | July 24, 2017 10:22 AM    Report this comment

Can't imagine flying single pilot IMC without my STec 30.

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | July 24, 2017 10:26 AM    Report this comment

>> I don't sense a latent desire for autopilot systems among our readers and viewers.

Your busy schedule hasn't given you time to read the Grumman forums apparently. There's plenty of desire with these owners. Most of the AA1/AA5 fleet either has no autopilot (Lynx, Traveler, Cheetah) or an embarrassingly old Century I/II in Tigers.

For any owners with an IFR ticket or about to pursue one, autopilots in these planes are practically mandatory...

Posted by: Peter Kuhns | July 24, 2017 11:46 AM    Report this comment

The autopilot market should be fairly significant. There are plenty of 70-80's vintage birds of all variety with Century or other systems that have limited capability or broken and too expensive to fix (as in my case). I think there will be lots of interest in a more complete avionics upgrade as the ADSB clock runs down and these fantastic new and more affordable systems come to market.

Posted by: August Ochabauer | July 24, 2017 12:35 PM    Report this comment

We've quite a group of homebuilders at our airpark. Just about everything has an autopilot, even Cub clones. As someone who flew Cubs many hours for years, I just can't fathom Cobs with glass panels and autopilots.

Such is Life,

Posted by: Edd Weninger | July 24, 2017 12:38 PM    Report this comment

First the magenta line. Then real-time weather. Next, a cheap autopilot with envelope protection. If I didn't know better I'd say this is a recruitment plan for people who want to say they're pilots.

Posted by: Jerry Fraser | July 24, 2017 3:25 PM    Report this comment

"First the magenta line. Then real-time weather. Next, a cheap autopilot with envelope protection. If I didn't know better I'd say this is a recruitment plan for people who want to say they're pilots."

I'm assuming that's a facetious statement...

Posted by: Gary Baluha | July 24, 2017 4:40 PM    Report this comment

Good pilot with an a/p is more efficient and safe.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 24, 2017 5:10 PM    Report this comment

"I'd say this is a recruitment plan for people who want to say they're pilots."
Not everyone who wants to participate in GA is - or wants to be - a pilot. Some people just want to fly. Autonomous aircraft (the ultimate "autopilot?") will make that possible.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | July 24, 2017 6:02 PM    Report this comment

I purchased a plane 18 months ago that is equipped with a two-axis AP. After flying my other plane for nine years sans AP, I can't imagine ever flying without one. When I want to manipulate the plane I hit the little button on the stick and act like a pilot's pilot. However, the majority of time I let my little friend in the IP do the flying while I enjoy the inflight snacks and watch the world slip beneath my wings.

Posted by: jay Manor | July 24, 2017 6:25 PM    Report this comment

"I'm assuming that's a facetious statement..."
Yes and no. Technological advancement is here to stay, and that's a good thing. Instrument flight, especially single pilot, is challenging enough without being uncertain of your whereabouts. But I do worry about dependence on the wizardry.
Also, when it comes to new pilots, I would say no to any of that stuff until sometime after private certification... which would probably not be a good business model, I know.
I'll grant you that you get a lot of the stick and rudder stuff working on the commercial certificate (and it's quite welcome after the grind of the instrument rating). But how many pilots get the commercial certificate?
It was not that long ago -- or was it -- when I did my solo cross countries having been admonished not to use the VOR.

Posted by: Jerry Fraser | July 25, 2017 8:53 AM    Report this comment

I do fly my airplane all over the country and an autopilot is a must. So I think there is a market for an affordable autopilot. I have the old reliable Century IIB in my Mooney (And the STec 30 ALT) and after an initial investment of about $2,500 a decade or more ago to make it work properly it has been good. Until recently. Now after an hour or so it decides it wants to go someplace else. I just don't think it makes sense to spend any more money fixing it so I have been looking for an affordable replacement. I can do without envelope protection but whatever, that's the way they are making them. At SNF I got a written estimate of $29K to install an STec 55X. That took my breath away. Then I walked down to Trio and they said $7K and about 20 hours to install (once they have the STC). My issue with the Trio is that it won't track a localizer or glideslope. Now Garmin also says $7K. As a consumer what's not to like?

Posted by: Joel Ludwigson | August 7, 2017 10:01 AM    Report this comment

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