Radical or Retro?

The avionics crystal ball reveals no easy answers.

We are poised at another fork in the technological road. Not the information superhighway, but that lonely back road taken by the avionics industry as it tries to find its way from the last generation to the next success.

Taking the correct fork means profits, security and fame. The wrong choice will mean obscurity and ruin. In avionics, King Radio and S-Tec chose correctly, Bertea and Logue mis-calculated.

Aircraft owners, of course, must navigate the same fork. Choose correctly, and youll equip your airplane wisely at least for the mid-term future.

Choose wrong and you may suffer that unique sinking feeling that comes from having your avionics tech cover the phone and say Hey, Frank, you know anyone who still works on those old SuperNav 5000s?

Which Way?
Today, the two major roads to avionics equipage appear to be very similar, until you take a look at what each has to offer. The path straight ahead is represented by units such as the Garmin GNS 430. This system is a logical extension of conventional avionics.

Take the existing GPS technology, couple it to a dynamite color moving map and add the required fundamentals of VOR/ILS and a VHF comm radio. A one-box solution for IFR nav/comm/GPS. A little different, yes, but not edge-of-technology radical.

Taking a different road is Avidyne and others of its ilk, such as Archangel and ARNAV. Their solution is a moving map, like Garmin, but its an all-seeing display. The Avidyne doesnt have its own receivers. Rather it looks at the tons of raw data fed by GPS, weather and datalink systems and presents the crew with the vital information in an easily understood format.

While these units provide dissimilar and even complementary information, they are mutually exclusive in most general aviation airplanes. Each requires significant panel space. Garmins GNS 340 is 2.65 inches tall. The Avidyne is 4 inches tall. Yet the Avidyne-equipped airplane must have-as individual, discrete boxes of some kind-most of the stuff inside a GNS 430 to work; GPS, glideslope and VOR, plus the comm.

Increasingly, manufacturers such as BF Goodrich and Insight are making sure their products will talk to external displays but you, as owner, are on the hook to buy and install the stuff, make sure it works and, most important, get it certified by the local Feds. The certification issue is probably the biggest concern. Both the Avidyne and Garmin units have FAA approval or soon will have, in the form of TSOs. Nonetheless, not all certifications are equal in the eyes of the FAA.

The Avidyne holds two approvals as of late summer: TSO C113 for moving maps and C-110a for weather detection, which allows it to display radar data. By itself, it cannot provide the course display for sole means IFR GPS navigation or the other things a GNS 430 can do.

A significant amount of the installation cost is in the paperwork. Forget Bernoullis principle; airplanes fly because paper makes them airworthy. Making a functional installation of either system is easy. Developing a certifiable installation will probably be easier for a GNS 430 than for an Avidyne system. Installation and certification of the Avidyne will require loads of paperwork. How is it interfaced to the remote sensors? Does previous approved data exit? Has anyone done it? Did they get the local FSDO to sign off on it?

A shop will have its work cut out for it to align all the ducks for the installation approvals. Sure as shooting, as soon as one interface is approved, the next guy will want something different. Some of these approvals will sail through the system, many will not and some will be approvals from hell.

Thats where Avidynes open architecture will be so critical. Somehow, they must convince the FAA, at the national and local level, that their display will behave the same way in all applications. A 172 display must be predictably like a C90B King Air. Protestations to the contrary, the FAA is the antithesis of flexibility. If it hasnt been done before, it cant be done now.

On the other hand, the GNS 430 will wind up with six or seven TSOs-maybe more-by the time its ready for market later this year. Its approvals will be for VOR, localizer, glideslope and IFR GPS. While it doesnt display weather for now, it does give you all of the tools necessary to get around and down in the airspace system.

This GNS 430 is just another nav unit and all FSDO avionics inspectors are by now well versed in the follow-on field approval for TSO C129 GPS for non-precision approaches. The GNS 430 should be a slam-dunk into most panels. Garmin is familiar with the FAA and vice versa. To the FAA, the GNC 430 is a different box, alright, but its not that different. When your avionics tech is done with the initial gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands, its just another GPS box, with TSO approved comm/VOR/ILS installed.

Flexibility, Reliability
Obviously, the GNS 430 does a lot, but it cant hold a candle to the Avidyne in terms of flexibility and future potential. The 430s program is fixed, until WAAS and LAAS hit the fan. Will it have the chops to make a turn on a dime two years from now if the FAA hangs a 90-degree left turn on WAAS/LAAS? Since the Avidyne is a map, a radar screen, a lightning detector display and promises much more, its far more flexible. Unfortunately, the FAA may not be.

The Avidyne system is so flexible that other manufacturers can modify it to suit their own product line. Trimble recently introduced its branded version of the Avidyne called the TrimView; a display platform hardware running the Avidyne software. A wise move by Avidyne to spread the risk and the approval workload across additional resources.

With Bendix/King linked to Skyforce, IIMorrow and ARNAV at work on their own systems and Garmin well along with the GNS 430, Trimble is the most reputable GPS company for an upstart such as Avidyne to connect with. As in other sectors of the high-tech world, mergers and joint ventures may be the route to prosperity or at least survival.

If youre eyeballing an Avidyne system and have concerns about reliability, your concern is not misplaced. There are a couple of issues. First, the Avidyne software architecture is Windows-based, which hasnt impressed anybody for reliability. Easy to hook into, yes. And the NT-version is supposed to be super stable. But any new release from Microsoft seems to create more havoc than benefit. (We figure Windows 01 will be a quill pen and parchment.) We hope that Avidyne has a better handle on this than we do, but wed never trust it on a dark and stormy night.

The Future
Gazing deeply into the crystal ball, we see mist and fog. The spirit world is not kind in showing the best path. But looking back, we see some very clear lessons.

About 1980, King Radio introduced a box not too different than the GNS 430, at least in terms what it could do relative to state of the art two decades ago. It was called the KNS 80, a single unit incorporating a VOR, localizer, glideslope and the disco polyester version of GPS, a rho-theta-based course line computer.

When the KNS 80 first came out, owners scoffed at putting so much into one box. Shops grumbled about wiring and installation complexity. Skeptics were vindicated because early units werent terribly reliable. Although the electronic technology was available to make this unit, the packaging had some maturing to do.

Besides gas discharge display problems, there were intermittent problems caused by the tremendous number of internal connections. Yet within a few short, recession-prone years, the KNS 80 became the industry standard for an integrated RNAV/ILS unit. Tens of thousands have been built and most are still flying. Wed bet that many pilots use only a fraction of the capability in this box, even as simple as it is by todays standards.

During the same historical epoch, Bendix introduced the real cats meow in avionics, the BX2000. This fully integrated nav/comm system was an example of pure engineering genius. The whole stack could be controlled and configured from a central CDU. This system was intended to beat the KNS 80 at its own game. Integrate, centralize, use technology to the greatest good.

Except the BX2000 was big, power hungry and complicated. We recall two aircraft manufacturing executives (who will remain anonymous, because one of them is still a senior executive at that company) decided to go for a test hop with the new BX2000. They never left the tie down. After 10 minutes of trying to raise anybody on those fancy radios, they gave up. And that about describes the total BX2000 experience. Too complicated, with not enough return in utility for the expenditure.

Where do the Avidyne and GNS 430 fit in this parable? Well let you decide for yourself. But there may be a hint in the fact that Gary Burrell, co-founder of Garmin, was the VP of engineering at King Radio not so long ago. Burrell-and the people he works with-never forget a lesson or miss a detail. The other hint might be to look at the front of each system. One unit has buttons that have a purpose thats labeled. The other uses highly flexible system of soft keys with sub menus and icons.

We dont mean to pick on Avidyne. Their contribution to the cockpit of the future will be immeasurable. Their system provides so much utility that it must rely on the soft key scheme thats increasingly familiar to computer literati. Yet for comparison, there is simple and then there is not so simple.

The simple path from point A to point B is direct and clearly defined. The more complicated path may provide great benefits, but will require patience and, usually, more financial resources.

And the bottom-line bucks may be the determining factor here. When betting on the future, how much do you want to put on table? Bidding on the Avidyne system starts around $17,000, with minimal capabilities. The GNS 430 will probably come in around $12,000, with all bells and whistles fully tuned.

Finally, the simple truth is this: Garmin and Avidyne are different. Both will be successful, we hope. Their products, while both LCD display moving maps, are different where it counts. The ideal condition would be an airplane with both the GNS 430 to handle the navigation and the Avidyne for added information and weather avoidance.

But we dont all drive airplanes with that much panel space. A GNS 430-or other units like it, as they become available-with a Stormscope will get you where you want to go, safely.

Our bet is that the evolutionary box with revolutionary capabilities has an edge on the future.

by Gary Picou

Gary Picou is Aviation Consumers avionics editor. Hes VP of marketing at PS Engineering, an intercom maker.