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The Next Great Thing in the avionics world

Technological breakthroughs run the gamut in the aviation industry, but if there’s one area evolving faster than any other it’s the avionics sector.

January 10, 2011  By Rob Seaman

Technological breakthroughs run the gamut in the aviation industry, but if there’s one area evolving faster than any other it’s the avionics sector.

avionics 1  
British Antarctic Survey Dash-7 modified by Voyageur Airways and Avionics Design Services.   PHOTO: T.J. Ryan, Voyageur Airways Ltd.


In spite of the recent economic downturn the avionics side remains active and productive, albeit moving somewhat slower than in previous years. The good news is most technological advancements focus on refining and improving the quality, efficiency and safety of aircraft operations and passenger service and support.

Most avionics shops and OEMs report a healthy interest in products and services – the majority of the focus remains split between cockpit updates and passenger amenities. The two are essentially intertwined and many owners take advantage of a shop visit to address both, making the best use of downtime.


The most requested items in today’s market remain flat panel cockpit updates and system revisions. Both improve the safety and productivity of older aircraft, while adding additional hull value come resale time. Usually coupled with such upgrades are the introduction of new navigation systems, aids and communication or data transmission capabilities. High-speed broadband and Wi-Fi capabilities are also enhanced, meaning improvements to both the cockpit and the cabin.

When significant avionics work is needed, it’s likely an STC will be involved – and that’s where companies like Avionics Design Services Ltd. come in. The Midland, Ont.-based firm has evolved into an industry leader by providing approvals to avionics systems designs in all types of aircraft.

When discussing trends in avionics, principal Robert (Bob) Gow maintains Wi-Fi and EFBs remain hot items, but there’s still a steady demand for GPS and FMS upgrades to WAAS. He also sees many TAWS installation approvals and a demand for high-performance AHRS in the Northern Domestic Airspace.

Gow reports, as many do throughout the industry, that business is static and very price sensitive. Gow also maintains the Transport Canada paper trail is slowing down their company’s STC throughput and causing marked delays in approvals. This has had a negative impact on his business, the shops and OEMs that rely on his firm’s services and, in turn, has had a trickle-down effect to slow business industry-wide.

Gow is in good company when he states there are too many impediments to cross-border work. “FAA and TCCA approved data should be seamlessly applied to both Canadian and American aircraft, regardless of the state of design or state of registry,” he says. So, great ideas and technology aside, it’s common to hear that the “red tape” is interfering with the ability of the industry to work – and perhaps even grow – out of the post-recessionary blahs that continue to linger.

Making change more efficient
Since all aircraft are unique either through OEM design or years of individualized upgrades and changes, there are rarely simple, easy plug-and-play answers to avionics upgrades. Therefore, STCs are needed in many instances – and costs will vary. OEMs have been working diligently to create new products that interface and adapt in various ways – all with the goal to making upgrades as simple as possible.

There will seldom be a generic one-size-fits-all solution, but there have been great strides made by firms such as Garmin, Universal, and Rockwell Collins – along with Canadian stakeholders such as EMS and True North – to develop products that interact with one another or existing technologies.

Trend watch
So, what are the growth prospects heading into the New Year? Norm Matheis, regional manager for Canada at Universal Avionics, says last year’s retrofit sales focused on WAAS-capable wFMS Flight Management Systems. Most apparent were northern and resource operators recognizing the benefits of investing in development of RNAV GNSS (LPV) approach procedures along with Universal’s wFMS airborne equipment.

“The special-use, resource and northern folks really get it,” says Matheis. “I’m convinced LPV is going to change access to the north.”

When highlighting successful products, Universal has had success with sales of its flagship EFI-890R flat panel glass at Canadian modifiers, including the delivery of an advanced four-display flight deck in a Dash 7 aircraft used for an overseas special mission operation.

Dave Hume, aftermarket sales manager Canada at Rockwell Collins, says it, too, has been busy on the LPV front. The firm recently announced new upgrades for both Dassault and Gulfstream aircraft and has achieved certification of its LPV solution for the Dassault Falcon 50, 50EX, 2000 and 2000EX aircraft equipped with its Pro Line 4 avionics.

Hume adds that Rockwell Collins has also achieved certification of its LPV solution for G150 aircraft equipped with Pro Line 21 avionics. Rockwell Collins holds the STC for the Dassault aircraft, while Gulfstream holds the STC for the G150. Hume says with these additions, Rockwell Collins has now certified approximately 22 WAAS/LPV solutions over the past year on a variety of Pro Line 4 and Pro Line 21 equipped aircraft manufactured by Bombardier, Cessna, Dassault, Hawker Beechcraft and Gulfstream.

The LPV certification complements Rockwell Collins’ Approved Model List (AML) STC, available today to upgrade the entire Pro Line 4 and Pro Line 21 fleet to the company’s GPS-4000S receiver, which enables the WAAS GPS capability. Operators who upgrade to the GPS-4000S may take advantage of WAAS in North America using GPS as their primary means of navigation and eliminate the time-consuming Receiver Autonomous Integrity Monitoring (RAIM) check.

Praising Canadian ingenuity
Field Aviation’s chief operating officer, Joar Gronlund, agrees that flat panel upgrades, WAAS LPV and satcom are market leaders when it comes to the world of avionics. And he should know all about setting standards – Field has built a global reputation for integration of such technologies into much larger Special Mission applications and projects.

“Synthetic Vision technology has also become a standard option on many new primary and secondary flight displays,” he says. “There has been a growing interest in this technology, especially from the special mission operators, and operators, flying in difficult terrain where advance situational awareness technology is essential to increased safety.”

One of the most exciting aspects of avionics technology today, says Gronlund, is the amount of information available to pilots on various classifications of aircraft with the retrofits of new integrated flat panel displays (including Enhanced Vision (FLIR). Among Field’s many new projects has been the flight deck modernization of the 100/200/300 series Dash 8 incorporating the previously noted Universal Avionics EFI890R flat panel displays. Field has significant experience on Dash 8s in commercial and special missions profiles from around the world, making them prime candidates to spearhead such retrofit programs.

A clearer perspective
Identifying the “the next great thing” in the avionics world is never easy, but Mid-Canada Mod Center’s Bill Arsenault doesn’t hesitate when he’s asked his opinion: Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC), also referred to as LINK2000+. CPDLC enables the flight crew and controllers to exchange routine, non-time-critical instructions, clearances and requests via data link text messages. The implementation of data link is one of the key operational improvements that will alleviate voice channel congestion in busy European airspace.

Communication errors such as simultaneous transmissions, misheard voice instructions and requests are reduced when data link is employed. By sending a text message directly to the aircraft, the controller can communicate instructions and clearances without having to repeat them. Flight crew can also read and acknowledge instructions and clearances directly sent to them in text.

Data Link will be used within core European airspace as a supplementary means of communication to voice. It is not the intention to replace voice, in this airspace, as the primary means of communication. CPDLC is going to be compulsory in Europe in 2011.

Although this technology is relatively new to general aviation aircraft, Arsenault notes that airlines have had their version, FANS, for a few years now. The commercial world is using a system called FANS-1/A now. “The /B version was under-way when the specification for FANS-2 came out,” he says. “FANS-2 ties in ADS-B and broadcasts more aircraft position info to the controller than FANS-1. For now, at least, only North American aircraft travelling to Europe will be affected.”

Arsenault does note, however, that some 15 years ago, there wasn’t an RVSM issue either – now there is. “It will migrate here as well at some point, mostly in heavily congested airspace,” he says. And while this remains an option on new OEM aircraft, it will inevitably become a “standard” part of the avionics suite from Day 1.

As Arsenault sees it, those looking 10 years down the road, or travelling to Europe on a regular basis, will need to adapt to CPDLC sooner than later. For commercial operators, there’s one important notation – old airliners will have a hard time meeting the new standard without putting out a small fortune’s worth of equipment. Accordingly, Eurocontrol has stated if an aircraft is FANS-1/A capable by a certain date, they will receive a lifetime exemption from the new regulation.

What do you need to work with CPDLC? “You have to have a compliant FMS or control display unit (CDU) that interfaces to a communications management unit to send and receive data and messages,” says Arsenault. “There’s also some telemetry connected to the CMU and data from the FMS that may get sent to ATC.”

Depending on the age of the aircraft, this could set an operator back anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000. It could be less on newer aircraft, but involvement from the aircraft OEM and the OEM responsible for the avionics suite generally add costs for software changes. Testing of FANS-1 over Iridium has met with sufficient success that they are moving from trial to implementation soon. Present FANS communications requires an expensive satcom system or being within range of VHF stations. This will make the satcom portion more affordable.

So, what if an aircraft does not have CPDLC in the immediate future? It depends on Eurocontrol. The speculation is that time and altitude restrictions will be imposed on non-compliant aircraft – they will be restricted to a less busy time of day and lower altitudes.

The bottom line? It’s just one more consideration for operators when trying to keep up to speed with changes in avionics technology.

The Automation Question
Do enhanced controls distract pilots?

While advances in avionics are impressive, there’s question as to whether or not too much automation may be problematic for pilots. In fact, recent updates to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s 1996 landmark report on “interfaces between flight crews and modern flight deck systems” reveal pilots operating flight control computers and devices while in flight can be distracted from “managing the flight path of the airplane.”

Dr. Kathy Abbott, the author of the new report, suggests pilots can “abdicate” their responsibility to the automated systems. She also notes that in some cases, today’s pilots lack practice in “hand-flying” as a result of their dependence and practice of using automation in the cockpit and will, in her view, hesitate to take control of the automated systems in the event of an emergency.

Abbott also suggested at the Flight Safety Foundation International Aviation Safety Seminar Nov. 2-5, 2010, in Milan, Italy, that automated systems could be a contributing factor in as many as 60 per cent of the accidents reviewed by the FAA research team. Further, Abbott suggests pilots are sometimes uncertain about engaging or disconnecting the autopilot in various types of emergencies.

The full report is expected to be released in early 2011, and is expected to set new industry benchmarks. Benchmarks can be a good or bad thing with regulators; time will tell on this one.

– Rob Seaman


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