New technology has a way of creating a certain stampede mentality among companies who want to get in on the action. Weve seen that happen with GPS, with airborne datalink and now with traffic detection equipment, specifically portable traffic detection gear. The newest entrant in the traffic nanny sweepstakes is ProxAlert, with a portable device called the ProxAlert R5.
This product first appeared on our radar about six months ago but our attempts to locate one revealed it to be an elusive quarry. When we did our last round of trials on portable traffic detectors in February, the ProxAlerts sole U.S. distributor, Eastern Avionics, was unable to provide a test unit. ProxAlert sent us one a week after we went to press with that report in the April issue of Aviation Consumer.
With the emergence of ProxAlert, we can say this about portable traffic devices: theyre all the product of a cottage industry. All three units, the Monroy ATD-300, the SureCheck TrafficScope and now the R5-are all designed and built by small, entrepreneurial companies, not the likes of a Garmin or Bendix/King. However, the R5 has a rather larger company behind it and is, in essence, an intrapreneurial project.
The R5s developer, Thierry Benaim, is a French electrical engineer and also a pilot. A near mid-air inspired him to develop his own version of a portable proximity alerter and he approached a company called Snergy Board Systems to fund and manufacture the device. SBS is both a major investor and the manufacturer of the R5 but ProxAlert itself is an independent company. SBS makes equipment to test printed circuit boards and semi-conductors. Anyone in that field will know the name.
In our view, the cottage industry nature of the traffic alerter industry has plusses and minuses. On the positive side, small companies can be creative, efficient and cost-effective. On the other hand, they dont have large technical support or sales staffs.
For example, when you phone Monroy, you usually speak to the companys principle, Jose Monroy. At ProxAlert, you get a limited but accessible support staff including Benaim himself.
As we noted in our previous report, ProxAlert is a new company just getting established. Although we initially had difficulty just finding a phone number for them, theyve since been more responsive, something we consider a positive development.
In fact, for this type of equipment, we think the companys responsiveness and customer service is a far more critical determinant in the buying decision than the product itself.
Nothing is more frustrating for customers of new gadgets than to have the company selling them stop answering the phone a week after the sale is made or to have software or other bugs go unresolved because the company lacks resources.
Same But Different
All three of the portable traffic devices are similar in one respect; theyre passive listeners, sniffing the nearby airspace for transponder signals and then making range and altitude calculations based on the results. If theres a design departure between the three of these devices, the SureCheck and ProxAlert share an attempt at the upper crust, offering sophisticated capabilities in terms of what and how they display information and providing additional features such as altitude alerting.
The Monroy ATD-300, on the other hand, pursues a simpler design philosophy; it does just the basics and uses a simple, single-line LED display rather than the more involved LCD displays found on the R5 and SureCheck TrafficScope. That makes the Monroy easier to use and interpret, but it also does less.
Sizewise, the R5 falls between the TrafficScope and the Monroys ATD-300. It measures 5 inches wide by 4 3/4 inches deep. Its height is 1 1/4 inches but the display itself is 1 7/8 inches, giving the unit a depth profile that looks like a sideways L. The LCD display itself measures 2 3/4 inches wide by 1 inch high.
The R5s shape does allow one unique feature, however. Its shipped with a couple of spring clips that screw into the bottom of the chasis and these can be slipped over the edge of the glareshield. This design supposedly secures the device without any need for Velcro patches which inevitably cook in the sun and become a sticky mess.
In some aircraft, however, the glareshield clip mount may place the unit closer than youd like for comfortable viewing and it may limit where it can be located along the width of the glareshield. In that case, a single Velcro patch along the crossbar of the L should hold the unit firmly in place. In our Mooney, the clip arrangement worked well, securing the R5 where it could be easily seen. However, a minor complaint: the clips arent quite beefy enough. On takeoff, with a little vibration, the R5 danced off the glareshield and would have pitched in the pilots lap without a timely catch. A bit of Velcro would address this, although the rubber feet shipped with the unit dont.
The back of the R5 has four jacks, one for audio output, a serial port for updating the software, a standard BNC antenna jack and a power plug. The antenna jack can be wired to an external L-band antenna and, says ProxAlert, the R5 can be panel mounted.
Were not sure about the FAA approvals required for panel mounting the R5. We suspect some FSDOs may balk. Well know more when more of these units are fielded but for the time being, were skeptical of claims that panel mounting will be no problem.
The R5 operates only on ships power; if you want battery operation, youll need to devise your own external battery pack. We found the voltage option to be a bit of an oddity: 6 to 16 volts. Why not 12 to 32 volts, as with the SureCheck and the Monroy and most portable GPS units?
There are lots of 28-volt aircraft out there and owners of these wishing to use the R5 will have to use a voltage stepdown device. Were sure that for many potentional buyers, the nuisance of doing that may rule out the R5 right out of the gate.
ProxAlert is aware of this and is planning to modify the R5 to run on 28 volts. Its also considering some sort of battery pack. At the moment, the only battery option is to devise your own pack from either alkalines or a small gel cell. (In this pack, the SureCheck TrafficScope is the only product that will operate on AA batteries.)
The front of the R5 has the display and seven labeled buttons. For those who dont like to read instruction manuals, these buttons may appear baffling at first, since their labels dont jive with anything most of us are familiar with. With study, these labels have a certain logic that isnt apparent at first glance.
For instance, two LEDS appear to the right of the display screen. One is orange and labeled RR. When its flashing, it means radar reply received. That makes sense. A red LED indicates at least one aircraft is in range and is labeled AD. Aircraft distance? Alert distance? Were not sure.
However, the R5s manual is detailed and well organized and we found that a quick perusal got us up to speed. Theres a page in the manual that gives a concise summary of control and display logic. One minor nit: the manual we got was misbound, causing some of the pages to fall out.
How It Works
As its name implies, the R5 is a passive proximity alerter. It listens for the replies to ground radar interrogations from nearby aircraft and extracts transponder codes and Mode C data to determine relative altitude and vertical trend information. It does calculate range but it doesnt do azimuth, a limitation of this technology shared by the R5s two competitors.
It has five available range settings, 1, 2, 3 and 5 miles and something called ground mode, which allows a range out to 10 miles. Vertically, its range may be set from 1000 to 5000 feet above or below the host aircraft altitude or unlimited vertical range in ground mode.
Each of these modes is set by pushing the H+ or H- buttons; its really quite simple. For vertical settings, the choice is 1000, 2000, 3000 and 5000 feet above or below the airplane, with U for unlimited vertical detection. These values are also set with buttons labeled V+ and V-. The H and V buttons are arranged in a logical crosswise shape on the R5s control panel, a feature we liked.
Another clever feature thats sometimes useful-and something the Ryan TCADs do-is to display the threat aircrafts four-digit squawk code. Why is this useful? When working with ATC, you can ask the radar controller where the target squawking 3431 is and be given instant azimuth information from the ground radar. This can be helpful in deciding sooner if the traffic is a threat. Its also useful in sorting out multiple targets, some of which you might see, some of which you might not.
The R5 does track and list multiple targets, up to three at a time. These are ranked according to horizontal or vertical proximity, the choice of either being a user settable option. The display gives squawk code, relative altitude and altitude trend plus estimated distance.
As the target aspect changes, so does the display, something which takes effort and attention to interpret. Another user settable option is to display absolute MSL or relative altitude.
Like the SureCheck TrafficScope, the R5 has a built-in pressure sensor to help with altitude calcula tions. The R5 has a cruise-altitude alert function which chimes if you drift off your assigned altitude by more than 300 feet. This is automatically engaged when the SCA button is pushed.
As with all portable devices, the R5 has the usual rats nest of wires, including the power cable and audio lead for the aural alerts. (These consist of chimes only; no voice.) We powered up the R5 on the ramp at Tampa International on a busy morning and were impressed with how quickly it self-tested and immediately displayed the three closest aircraft, one that just took off, a second overhead and evidently one on the ground. As each aircraft changed range relative to our own, the threat order on the R5s display swapped position.
In flight, we compared the R5s performance with the onboard Garmin 330/TIS system, which provides accurate range and azimuth data in those areas where the FAAs TIS (Traffic Information Service) is available. Since TIS has a 6-mile display range, the R5 found traffic that the TIS did not display. Assuming these werent phantoms, we deemed these targets to be of no threat but were impressed that the R5 found them, nonetheless.
We give the R5 good marks for range determination. In those instances were both the TIS and the R5 saw the same target, they generally agreed on range. But not always. One target we saw was clearly at 3 miles on the TIS and visual contact confirmed that. The R5 had it at about a mile.
This illuminates a persistent problem with determining range solely by transponder power output: it varies by transponder and when it does, so will the range calculation. However, we noted that the R5 always erred in the pilots favor; it thought traffic was closer than it actually was.
As with the other two devices, the R5 is somewhat blind to traffic ahead and below. We stalked a Cessna 152 around the pattern at Venice from 1000 feet above and the R5 never saw it, even though the TIS system did. It saw the target sporadically when we descended to pattern altitude. On the other hand, the R5 saw all the airplanes in the pattern from the run-up pad, where the TIS is blind.
The performance of all three of these devices is quite similar and, in our view, good, especially considering their price points. Although as a design philosophy, we lean toward the Monroy ATD-300s simpler approach, which eschews a complex display in favor of a simple one-line numerical heads- up warning, we were impressed with the R5. What it does, it does well, in our view.
Its quirky controls arent logical at first but can be mastered in a flight or two. Like the other devices, it does miss some traffic but our impression is that it performs better than the SureCheck TrafficScope, missing fewer targets.
Which of the three to buy? Theres definite price stratification here. At $795, the Monroy ATD-300 is the least expensive and we thought it performed marginally better than the SureCheck, although it doesnt have the range of features of either the SureCheck or the R5. The R5 was originally introduced at $1295 but has now been reduced to $1045, or $150 less than the SureCheck TrafficScope.
If you want the upper end features-trend displays, relative altitude, cruise alert and on-board pressure sensing system, the R5 is the easy winner over the SureCheck, in our estimation.
For a simple, no frills traffic nag, the Monroy ATD-300 isnt a bad choice but we think the R5 is worth the additional $250 over the Monroy. (We wish the Monroy had a battery option, which some owners will want.)
A word of caution: were standing by to field comments about customer service on all of these units and, frankly, we have some concerns. As we were going to press, we phoned ProxAlert and Thierry Benaim at the number given on the companys Web site to check some facts and details. The SBS operator who answered had never heard of ProxAlert or Benaim and insisted we had the wrong number. We can imagine how maddening this might be for customers.
On the other hand, we found Benaim and SBSs Rick Custance to be exceptionally responsive and knowledgeable when we finally managed to make contact by phone or e-mail, thus we think the company is making a real effort. In our view, that counts for a lot.