If you’ve been holding out for a cheaper mandate-compliant ADS-B solution you’ve no doubt been eyeballing the sub-$2000 uAvionix skyBeacon wingtip position light with integral ADS-B. There’s also the tailBeacon, a similar gadget that mounts on the vertical tail on airplanes with tail-mounted position lamps. As we’ve reported, uAvionix was slapped with a patent infringement lawsuit from Garmin on the basis that uAvionix copied some of its technology used in these devices. While the lawsuit will likely drag along in the system for some time-and it’s been successful business as usual at uAvionix-we get calls and letters on a regular basis from concerned potential buyers. I get it.
It’s bad enough to shell out two grand for a force-fed government mandate, and it would be worse if the product became orphaned should the courts rule in Garmin’s favor. We’ve seen it before. Recall the contentious losing battle ADS-B maker NavWorx had with the FAA when the agency ultimately pulled the plug on its products after determining they didn’t meet some of the stringent certification specs. That left a lot of early adopters scrambling for replacements and stung after shelling out a couple grand. It looks to be different at uAvionix, particularly now that it’s earned patent 10,156,627 for its Aircraft Navigation Light ADS-B Radio, otherwise known as the skyBeacon and tailBeacon products. Just weeks ago the company announced that it earned an FAA STC for the skyBeacon and is finally shipping the product to an anxious group of paying early adopters. Using customer deposit money to feed the certification budget is often a necessary slippery slope to scale, and uAvionix didn’t fall.
What’s significant about the patent is that it covers the company’s transponder synchronization circuitry, called the Power Transcoder. This is the tech that prompted Garmin to file the patent lawsuit to defend its own AutoSquawk interrogation circuitry it uses in a variety of Garmin ADS-B systems. Both technologies are cost-saving thanks to simplified installations. Without this internal circuitry, the ADS-B system would require an external control head for manual sync and fault monitoring. Plus you’d be messing around with changing beacon codes on multiple units during flight. Garmin bailed the market out of that silly chore with its control head-less AutoSquawk tech, which it currently uses in the GDL82 low-cost ADS-B Out system. This is a compact 978 MHz UAT module that connects inline with the existing transponder, including vintage non-Garmin models. It will also work with some existing antenna systems, and because of its sub-$2000 price, it will compete with skyBeacon installs. The skyBeacon is arguably the installation winner on many aircraft with externally mounted wing and tail position lights. Installs can be accomplished in a couple of hours or less, with some in under one hour. Garmin’s GDL82 installation consists of mounting an external GPS antenna and the remote ADS-B transmitter. Realistically, that’s a couple of days in the shop, but some shops might bang it out in a full day.
With the skyBeacon now approved and shipping, it will be interesting to see if it changes the current ADS-B Out buying trend, which points to Garmin’s GTX-series ADS-B transponder. Nearly every shop I’ve spoken with over the past year says Garmin’s transponder dominates. It makes sense for aircraft that need both a transponder and ADS-B compliance-especially ones that fly above 18,000 feet where 1090ES is required. As a bonus, you get wireless traffic and weather data-something you won’t get with a standalone skyBeacon. In general, you’ll pay $5000-plus for a full-up GTX345 install.
The uAvionix patent doesn’t end the Garmin dispute, but uAvionix is fair in reiterating that the USPTO recognizes distinct differences between the two competing technologies. That’s not a slam-dunk win, but it may be enough to boost buyer confidence.