The Great Avionics Inflection Point
I never know quite what to expect when I cover the Aircraft Electronics Association show, which opened Monday in Las Vegas. As shows go, it’s decidedly non-mega, with only about 130 exhibitors, many of them trade-to-trade selling tools and equipment shops are interested in but our readers aren’t.
This year’s show illuminated some trends that suggest that the avionics market is at an inflection point. Or maybe a continuing inflection point. One is Aspen’s introduction of the E5 EFI, a second is Garmin’s TXi displays migrating into older Citations and a third is the appearance of a couple of helicopter autopilots. OK, a fourth is Aspen and TruTrak teaming up on a EFI autopilot/combination deal.
First the E5, which, as our report on the product indicates, is Aspen’s answer to Garmin’s G5, a self-contained EFI that’s found strong market appeal for its combination of price and capability. The G5 came out of Garmin’s work in the experimental market and swung upscale for application in spam cans. Now Aspen wants in.
Interestingly, during the press luncheon at AEA, Aspen’s John Uczekaj said that the avionics market is undergoing a sea change that customers are beginning to understand but which shops don’t. Yet. He said non-certified gear built by Garmin, Dynon and a host of smaller companies is so well regarded for having sophisticated capabilities and bargain prices that now certified avionics are seen as hidebound, expensive and minimally capable. “It’s definitely a disadvantage to be certified,” he said.
This bodes well for avionics buyers because with the FAA focusing more on performance-based review rather than specific defined certification hoops, Uczekaj thinks buyers will see a profusion of capable new equipment at prices much lower than we’re used to. And, of course, we’ve already seen it from Garmin and Dynon.
In a way, Garmin got a little swamped by the wave it started. It edged to the cliff of less expensive avionics when it aggressively developed a line of gear for experimentals, shrewdly applying its engineering prowess to products that performed well, but cost less. Dynon and EAA pushed the cart over the cliff with the surprise STC for the DA10. That was a real #$@$% moment when it was announced at Sun ‘n Fun just two years ago.
Last year, Garmin announced the TXi series of displays meant to replace the aging mid-market G500/600 line. But the company missed the boat on pricing. Those certified systems are still north of ten grand when the market is forthrightly saying it doesn’t want the expense or bother of certified equipment but is happy with boxes costing a lot less whose capabilities aren’t constrained by certification fences. The TXi products were just too long in the oven and now buyers have tasted some sweeter muffins. And thus, the $5000 EFIS, or thereabouts, ought to be the next big thing.
And that gets me to a company called Jettech, which announced that it’s putting the finishing touches on an STC to install the TXi displays in Citations. With their touchscreens, the TXi series are decidedly mid-market boxes and, in the old days, like 2015, not the sort of thing that would appear in jets or even turboprops, the fertile ground of G1000 conversions pushing well into the six figures. Garmin did foresee this market and has a TXi version certified to a higher software level, but it’s nonetheless worth noting that jets and turboprops are no longer limited to gold-plated avionics. I wouldn’t have predicted that.
Nor would I have predicted the nice little synergies of TruTrak and Aspen teaming up to offer an EFI and a highly capable autopilot for just $10,000. The last time I priced an autopilot it was in the $25,000 range. Fewer buyers are going to pay that anymore and I wonder if even the jet guys are thinking, hey, wait a minute. Sooner or later, someone is going to figure out that companies like Avidyne, Aspen, Dynon and others can put together a nice little developmental consortium to compete with Garmin. Otherwise, as individual companies, they're bringing knives to a gun fight.
Last, sitting through the AEA product intro, I made note of two helicopter autopilot systems. Helicopters? I don’t think I’ve ever written about helicopter autopilots because there just aren’t many. Garmin announced the GFC 600H, which appears to be, at least in nomenclature, an offshoot of its GFC 700 for fixed-wing aircraft.
But helicopters have complex flight dynamics and just based on the published specs, the GFC 600H looks quite sophisticated. It even has a level button. I wonder if the advent of saner certification standards coupled with advancing avionics technology made a helicopter cert more attractive than it would have been, say, five years ago.
TruTrak’s Andrew Barker said yeah, that’s definitely the case. Components like gyros and pressure sensors have become ever more capable and ever cheaper and with the FAA actually exercising restraint on certification projects, more of them are coming out of the ground than might have a decade ago. Literally.
Another company, HeliTrak, also announced a new autopilot for the Robinson R44, a high-population piston helicopter. Interestingly, the technical talent came out of a company whose expertise is horizontal drilling—yeah, underground drilling. HeliTrak’s presenter pointed out that the technical problems of keeping a drill bit accurately tracking for a couple of miles through sand and rock is not dissimilar to autoflying a machine that’s trying to whirl itself to bits. HeliTrak’s system is a light but sophisticated autopilot whose certification is expected sometime in 2019.