Your Refurb: Panel Connectivity for Avionics

You did your flight planning on your tablet computer, why not let it talk directly to your panel-mounted, IFR avionics? A reasonably-priced upgrade can make it happen.

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As part of our continuing series on aircraft refurbs, we’ll focus on a specific avionics upgrade this month—the wireless interface of a portable device (tablet or cell phone) running a flight planning app with IFR-certified, panel-mounted avionics. If you’re doing an avionics upgrade as part of a refurb, we think wireless avionics integration makes sense, especially as the cost may be as low as $1,000 plus installation on top of what you may already be doing.

We’ll look at the underlying concept and outline what’s available from the two main players, Aspen and Garmin. We’ll also tell you up front that while Aspen was the first to deliver, its capabilities are limited, and Garmin’s offering is less expensive and more able.

A Little Background

Remember the bad old days—when flight planning for a long trip meant getting intimate with your route as you crawled over charts on the living room floor, trying to find your plotter, adding up mileage, spinning the whiz wheel and writing down a list of VOR frequencies on a tablet (the paper kind)? Once you got in the airplane you fired up, did the runup, selected the first frequencies you were going to need and launched. Then things changed—maybe for the better. You got a flight planning app on your tablet (the computer kind) and it let you sit in the recliner while it generated a route and best altitude. Once you got into the airplane, you fired up, did the runup and then you spent 20 minutes of Hobbs time head down entering the flight plan into the panel-mounted GPS navigator while thinking there had to be a better way.

The market has shown that pilots love GPS navigators, but aren’t crazy about having to go through some portions of the flight planning process twice—once on a tablet and once loading it into the aircraft’s avionics. Why couldn’t the tablet pass its information along to the boxes in the airplane?

The simplicity of the idea made sense, yet the potential downside of a tablet computer being able to wirelessly give commands to IFR-certified, panel-mounted avionics in a world of hackers rightfully gave everyone in the avionics world—not to mention the FAA—the heebie-jeebies.

Fortunately, a sensible, and simple solution was found—the data from the portable device would first flow into a panel-mounted device that would function as a gateway or firewall between the uncertified equipment and the IFR-certified avionics. Once in the gateway, the pilot would have to take action on one of the panel-mounted, IFR-certified units to then allow the data from the portable device to proceed to into the panel.

Aspen Connected Panel

For $2499, plus installation (provided you have an Aspen PFD and MFD), Aspen’s Connected Panel allows flight plan data from an app on an Apple iOS device to flow to panel-mounted Garmin GNS400W and 500W navigators.

The major component of the Connected Panel package is the one-pound Aspen CG100 wireless connected gateway box that is blind-mounted behind the panel. It connects to an Aspen 500 or 1000 MFD through an Ethernet databus and then to the Garmin navigators via a serial RS-232 databus. The CG100 uses a WiFi antenna to connect with a mobile device.

The tablet or cell phone has to use one of what Aspen refers to as a Connected Panel Application, currently Foreflight for flight planning and connecting with a panel-mounted navigator. Once the system is powered on, the pilot transfers the flight plan data on the portable device wirelessly to the CG100, which passes it along to the Aspen MFD. Using the MFD, the pilot confirms that the data was received and approves its transfer to the panel-mounted navigators.

The system works well, however, there is a downside, in 2013, Garmin made a software upgrade (5.0). It enabled ADS-B interfaces and used the crossfill data port on Garmin navigators that Aspen had used to allow Connected Panel to communicate with those Garmin navigators. That meant that Aspen owners must chose between Connected Panel and ADS-B with the installed boxes. We don’t necessarily feel this is a deal killer for someone considering installing Connected Panel, however, it is a major stumbling block and, combined with a price that is $1500 higher than Garmin’s integrated wireless system (which does work with ADS-B), Aspen’s system has lost much of its attractiveness. We are watching to see how Aspen deals with this setback.

Garmin Flight Stream

As part of its Connext connected cockpit product line, the 800-pound gorilla of general aviation avionics brought out two versions of integration of certified panel boxes and portable devices. They are not only much less expensive than Aspen, they breathe new life into its GNS 430 and 530 navigators. Starting at $549, Garmin’s Flight Stream 110 uses a remotely mounted Bluetooth transceiver with integral WAAS GPS that enables the flow of data to and from permanently installed sensors in the aircraft. (While Flight Stream has received FAA approval as a connectivity device, it is not approved as an ADS-B WAAS position source—you’ll still need a panel-mounted WAAS navigator such as the GDL8 ADS-B receiver.)

The Flight Stream 110 sends GPS position, FIS-B ADS-B weather and TIS-B ADS-B traffic data received from Garmin’s GDL88 ADS-B receiver to compatible portable devices—Apple and some Android units—running the Garmin Pilot app (it’s the only app that will interact with Flight Stream). The GDL88 has been advertised as a one-box ADS-B system; however, it does not have a display. Flight Stream provides a much cheaper solution by displaying weather and traffic on a tablet rather than requiring the installation of a panel display.

If the airplane has a GDL69 XM receiver, Flight Stream will send satellite broadcast weather to the tablet running the Garmin Pilot app, which provides a clearer display of radar images than on a GNS 430 or 530. The Garmin Pilot app will also control Sirius XM Satellite Radio entertainment through Flight Stream.

Flight Stream 210

Flight Stream 110 does not allow flight plan data from a portable device to be transferred to panel-mounted navigators—that level of connectivity requires Flight Stream 210. Offered for $999, its box includes an AHRS sensor, and also provides attitude data to the Garmin Pilot app.

Once the avionics are powered up, the Bluetooth connection with Flight Stream 210 is established via the “Connext” tab in the Garmin Pilot app and the pilot commands the transfer of the flight plan previously created in the app to the GNS or GTN navigators. The pilot then looks to the panel-mount navigator to review the loaded flight plan and accept it. The flight plan has to be accepted on the navigator itself, not on the app.

The Garmin Pilot app can be configured to pay attention to flight plan changes made in the panel-mount navigator and it can be used to change the flight plan in the navigator during flight.

Flightstream will connect with more than one portable device at a time, so a passenger can control the Sirius XM radio, however, the passenger cannot load anything into the navigators the pilot does not want. The pilot has to review and accept any flight plan or change to a flight plan on the panel-mounted navigator.

Because the Garmin Pilot app allows creating flight plans using airways rather than requiring each point to be selected, as does entering flight plans on the GNS 430 and 530, Flight Stream effectively updates the 430 and 530 by allowing them to now accept flight plans with airways.

Flight Stream will also interact with Garmin’s D2 pilot watch, although the watch does not have all the capabilities to control panel-mounted avionics that a tablet does.

Conclusion

For $1000, we think Garmin’s Flight Stream 210 provides a strikingly efficient path to connectivity between IFR-certified panel avionics and Apple and Android portable devices, and gives an elegant solution for displaying ADS-B weather and traffic information without having to spend the money for a panel-mounted display.

Rick Durden is the Features editor of AVweb and the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vol. I.