AEA: Google to the Rescue on ADS-B?


For what can be a long list of new product introductions, AEA has a great strategy: Give every company five minutes on the stage to make the elevator pitch, then on to the next one. Still, with 33 new products on Wednesday’s opening day, it was two-hour slog to sit through it all.

I amused myself by sending a text to colleague Larry Anglisano revealing that Wal-Mart had just announced a line of ADS-B products. But the joke was on me. A bit later, I was chatting with Brad Hayden, late of Aspen Avionics but now running his own drone repair company. He asked what I thought about Google’s ADS-B plans. You mean the sense-and-avoid research they’ve hinted at? Nope, he said, they’re getting into ADS-B hardware. As we report today, FlightGlobal had this story two weeks ago and for the life of me, I don’t know how the rest of us missed it. Probably because we don’t cover ICAO meetings, an odd venue where Google chose to reveal its plans. Very few outlets picked this up.

And that’s too bad, because it is potentially huge. Like over-the-top, seriously-disruptive-split-the-market-open huge. Why? Because Google is a tech giant with a lot of money it’s willing to invest in a future it sees dominated by robotic technologies, including swarms of drones to deliver things and provide services such as communication, surveillance and survey and things we haven’t even thought of yet.

Laser-like, Google has zeroed in on the potential barriers to stymy its plans: regulation and fear. You can bet it’s spending serious money greasing the political wheels to hurry up regulations favorable to its cause. The fear part relates to legitimate concerns by aviation interests—read the manned aircraft industry—of collisions with UAS operating at low altitude, say 500 feet and below. But unlike some in the general aviation industry, Google has figured out that deconfliction of drone-to-drone traffic and drone-to-manned will depend heavily on ADS-B and that acceptable safety levels will be achieved only if all aircraft are equipped. From Google’s point of view, that may include aircraft whose owners don’t want to equip because they would rather avoid the mandated airspace than spend four grand for a blind box with limited perceived value. Of course, that’s where most of the UAS will fly. That’s why Google’s Dave Vos was quite clear in saying the company wants to drive down ADS-B costs for manned and unmanned aircraft.

And if I’m reading Vos’ remarks right, Google is willing to wade in with its own money to dramatically drive down the cost of ADS-B so everyone can afford it and, more important, will be willing to buy it. In this market, Google could be more than the 800-pound gorilla; it could be the center of the known universe. Even if it has to invest hundreds of millions selling ADS-B at a loss, you can easily see why Google would see this as mere pocket change in service of a larger, visionary goal.

There are two nuts to crack. One is less expensive hardware, the other is simpler, cheaper installation. I don’t think, and I’ll bet Google shares this, that $2000 hardware costs are low enough. Nor is $1500 to $2000 low enough for installation costs. Can Google drive this to $500 with a streamlined installation process that doesn’t require ripping the airplane apart? A portable? My view is that a $62 billion company with a big dog in the fight is a lot likelier to make this happen than the FAA thundering about regulation or avionics companies offering more choices at the same marginally attractive prices.

Whether Google develops its own ADS-B technology—a trivial task for a company of its capabilities—or funds someone else to do it is immaterial. One company, Sagetech, already has 100-gram ADS-B units that will fit into a shirt pocket. These are designed for UAS applications. With hundreds of thousands of drones on the horizon—all ADS-B equipped—the downward pressure on hardware prices should benefit everyone. If I were in the ADS-B business myself, I’d be nervously watching this.

Aspen’s AOA

Angle of attack indicators used to be something the aviation press whined about not being available for GA aircraft. Now, all of sudden, there’s a competitive market in AoA with several products to pick from and at AEA this week, Aspen rolled out its own version.

At Dallas’s Alliance Airport—the world’s quietest large airport—I took a brief demo flight with the system with Aspen’s James Buck and Scott Smith in a Cirrus. As you can see in this video, Aspen has been canny and creative in the design of this AoA. Rather than relying on a mechanical vane or a pressure-sensing pitot-type mast to infer angle of attack, this system does it entirely in the software. It uses the Aspen Evolution’s sophisticated accelerometers to calculate the aircraft’s energy state and from that, infer AoA. The only installation required is a software upgrade and it applies to any vintage Aspen system.

Because the weather at Alliance was marginal, we stayed in the pattern to gain at least a sense of how the display works. I really need more time to judge it fairly, but I saw enough to stipulate that it works as claimed. Aspen’s John Uczekaj told me that the company has a larger vision than just selling AoA system. They believe that if these products are priced right and involve minimal installation, enough of them can enter the market to make a real dent in loss-of-control and stall/spin accidents. While I like the theory, I remain skeptical of AoA indicators as the great white hope.

It’s not that they don’t work; they do, and Aspen’s appears to be a good performer. My skepticism relates to expectations for what the devices can do. For one thing, they aren’t well integrated into the training doctrine yet and it may be many years before they are. Second, pilots have proven devilishly clever at defeating the best-intended technology in their determination to make smoking holes. Aspen is aware of this and will be partnering up with training institutions using their equipment to integrate AoA into basic flight training. I think that’s the only way to make progress and it may be some years before we see it.

Two decades ago, we had a Huntington Lift Reserve indicator in our Mooney, a then esoteric device if ever there were one. But if you planted the needle on the best L/D index, you could stick landings in two thirds the distance you’d burn up using just airspeed. The newer technology, which admittedly has the rather different purpose of stall awareness and avoidance, performs better than the LRI did. We’ll just have to see if pilots can learn to use these things effectively. For what it’s worth, I’d buy one of these before I’d invest in anti-collision equipment, for reasons I’ve stated before.

Mood Lighting and Tunes

In between ADS-B intros, the big thing at AEA is connectivity and internet gewgaws for bizjet cabins. This stuff is a little out of our market focus so I naturally tend toward eye glaze over when it’s discussed.

One company was introducing a new product that, if I understood it correctly, streams 4K video to the cabin so those important executives flying to Hong Kong could (a) enjoy Fast and Furious 7 in maximum definition or (b) have a business conference which, due to magic of 4K video, is just like being there. That led me to quite naturally wonder if 4K is just like being there, why am I on a jet actually going there?

One purveyor of airborne internet who actually gets the joke is GoGo’s Dave Salvador, who played ahilarious clip of Louis C.K.’sdiscussion with Conan O’Brian about how people think when the internet service crumps on their three-hour flight: It’s the worst experience of their life, worse even than Ebola or a divorce. “Everything’s amazing and nobody is happy,” is the way C.K. described it. And of course, the fact that this is absolutely true is what propels the multi-million-dollar airborne connectivity market.

Then there’s mood lighting. Thanks to rapid advancements in LED technology and related controls, it’s possible to project on the cabin ceiling the mood lighting of a rising sun, a late afternoon in the Rockies or just a nice shade of blue you might like. One company at AEA showed the very equipment to do this. Always good to know, eh, in case you get bored with your 4K movie or the internet node goes down.

With that, I’ll turn you back to wondering how you’re going to scrape up $4000 for an ADS-B system the FAA says you have to have and that Google hasn’t bought for you. Yet.