In some circles, its an article of faith that digital engine controls are a done deal; merely a matter of time. Considering how thoroughly electronics have penetrated the consumer and automotive markets, aviations Luddite resistance must soon crumble.
Or perhaps not.
Last fall, we reported on major developments in electronic engine controls, specifically full-authority digital engine control research being conducted by Aerosance, Inc. and by Lycoming, in conjunction with Unison Industries, which has already dabbled in electronics with its LASAR magnetos.
The underlying assumption is that these companies see market demand for electronic engine controls while at the same time admitting that buyers have shown a stubborn price sensitivity to expensive gadgets and an understandable insistence that they deliver measurable benefits.
Riding on the future of FADECs-or any electronic controls-are two questions: What will owners pay for these things and what do they expect them to do?
And further, what do buyers think about sophisticated features such as automatic leaning and single-lever power controls? Is this just NASA pipe dreaming or do pilots really want it?
Were not sure so we asked readers to tell us by returning a four-question survey we published in the October, 1998 issue of Aviation Consumer. Herewith are the results. All told, we heard from about 60 readers, including e-mail, faxes and phone calls, which continue to trickle in. (To be fair, some of the callers had more questions than answers.)
We asked if potential FADEC buyers expected this equipment as standard, an option or just didnt care one way or another. Our survey seems to suggest that whether through blind faith in technology or the relentless march of progress, owners really do see electronics in the engine compartment as inevitable.
Two thirds of those readers who responded to the survey-about 65 percent-said they expect to see fully automatic digital engine controls on new airplanes within the next few years. (For our time line, well say three to five years.)
We think thats good news for the companies pioneering these systems, for it indicates that theres a receptive market for the possibilities, even if many of those owners wouldnt actually spend a dime on such a system. At least these owners are broadly aware of the technical issues and appear to be listening.
This is long overdue. We need these advances in technology that have proven acceptable in automobiles, wrote Harry Neel, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Twenty one years in jet fighters taught me that a single power level is simpler and safer.
The remaining readers were split between expecting FADECs as an added-cost option or just not caring one way or another. But judging from the comments some of these readers offered, its not that they arent thinking about it. I would like anything that would improve range. Even manual spark advance. I want better performance and economy and they should be able to do redesigns that will do that, wrote Stephen Collins of Monmouth, New Jersey.
Much of the everyman-a-pilot futuristic propaganda put out by NASAs AGATE technology program touts the single-lever power control as the way of the future. NASA-which, as far as we know, has never sold a single airplane, seems to think the market is crying for engines that are simpler to operate or, at the least, that multiple power levers are a barrier to the resurgence of general aviation.
So we asked our readers if given the choice in a new airplane, what would it be? Single-lever power control, automatic leaning and spark advance or tried-and-true three-lever control?
Our mini-survey seems to suggest that pilots are split on this issue. We found that 40 percent said they preferred single-lever control while 40 percent said theyd be satisfied with automatic leaning and spark control but conventional throttle and prop controls. The remaining 20 percent said they would stick with conventional throttle, prop and mixture, thanks. (In that scenario, the FADEC could still manage spark advance and leaning according to pilot selected power.)
Three of my five cars have manual transmissions, by choice. I like it that way, wrote a Santa Barbara, California reader who voted for digital controls as an option but conventional controls rather than a single power lever.
Do I want FADEC? No, I dont think so. I do want DEC, though. Let me explain, said reader Frank Bowlin. I am decidedly not an appliance operator. I like to control the mode of operation of the automatic devices I employ. The same is true of my airplane. Although I applaud the degree of precision that can be achieved with digital engine controls (DEC), I do not want them to be fully automatic.Im willing to be convinced, but Im not yet.
We also asked if given the choice to add such a system at overhaul, what would readers prefer? Again, no clear preference but just shy of 50 percent voted for automatic leaning but manual prop control.
Were not sure if this indicates an ambivalent attitude toward the single-lever idea but our impression is theres no groundswell of support for it, either.
From the engine manufacturers point of view, GA owners are seen as price sensitive, which is another way of saying theyre skinflints. With the cold light of reality illuminating that fact, the defining question becomes what would owners pay for full authority digital engine controls?
With no reliable market data, the manufacturers are shooting in the dark on this one, just as we are. Unisons LASAR electronic magnetos have sold anemically at $2000 to $2500 above the cost of conventional magnetos but our interviews with owners and shops dont reveal whether the issue is strictly price or lack of performance or both.
About a third of the readers who answered our survey pledged that they wouldnt spend a dime on such technology. A few commented that unless the price is the same as conventional mags, theyre not buyers.
I have been flying small aircraft for 30 years, wrote Lawrence Radick of Tucson, and I have watched prices go up and up. Doo-dads and add-ons now cost more than I paid for my first airplane. FADEC is for big iron or maybe a Learjet or Citation. But the cost and possibility of something going wrong make it just another unnecessary gadget, in my opinion. Reader Radick penned a large goose egg for the price he would pay for FADEC.
Significantly, of those who took a stab at estimating what they would pay for a FADEC system, the average was $4900, which is very close to the sort of numbers were hearing from the people developing this technology.
Our parameters, by the way, were that the imaginary system we proposed would yield a modest 10 percent savings in fuel, easier starting, automatic leaning and single-lever control. We surmised that owners may be more interested in fuel savings than anything else and the survey seems to confirm that.
My bottom line price is based on fuel economy and, to some extent, expected reduced future maintenance expense. For a 10 percent economy realization, which I think is conservative, Id pay $3000 to $4000 installed, wrote Dick Reeves.
The fuel savings is the only thing that matters. Id like the cost savings as well as extended range. Id pay $5000 for that. But Id also worry about any increased maintenance costs, says Michael McNamara of Camden, New Jersey.
Obviously, 60 readers does not a market survey make, but this response caught our attention for it indicates that at least some owners are cognizant of the costs involved in developing FADECs and expect to pay for the perceived benefits this technology may provide. Those NASA air castle guys may yet be proven right.
So much for pop market research. Lets get down to business here and offer some bold predictions. Judging from our talks with readers and visits to various shows, we sense that the market is receptive if not ripe for new engine technology. Although previous attempts have largely flopped, the GA market is more robust now and buyers more savvy about the potential-and limitations-of electronic controls.
Without inching out onto the plank at all, we predict that within 18 months, at least two competing FADEC systems will be certified, flying and available on new airplanes and, selectively, as retrofits for overhauls and remans. Within two years, someone at your airport will have one to gawk at.
Although were bullish on the prospects for FADEC, theres still one problem: Magnetos are cheap and they work awfully well. Despite the nuisance of mag checks, overhaul cycles and recurring ADs, owners arent up late at night worrying about the magneto problem.
With that in mind, we predict a positive but slow start for FADEC technology if its primary benefit is simply easier starts, modest fuel savings and perhaps less intensive maintenance. Key to FADECs success is support from the major aircraft manufacturers and thus far, none have committed. We think they will, however.
Also, if someone invents a FADEC or engine combination that delivers markedly improved performance, the killer app may have arrived. Three years from now, we predict FADEC will be available but will be found on less than 5 percent of the piston engines in the GA fleet. In five years, look for one in five engines to have electronic help of some sort.
Of course, by then well all be lusting after those cheap single-engine jets NASA says well all be flying so pistons will be a thing of the past.
Also With This Article
Click here to view “FADEC Progress Report: Slow But No Showstoppers.”
-by Paul Bertorelli