by Larry Anglisano and
Wouldnt it be nice to have a fast, cheap and reliable datalink system that you could slap into your airplane so you could fly around during thunderstorm season without scaring the bejesus out of yourself and your passengers? Sure it would.
Our advice is to pick two of those adjectives and write the check because fast, cheap and reliable isnt quite here yet. When we last reported on aviation datalink in the September, 2002 issue, the market was awash in choices but also fraught with uncertainty about who would deliver what and when.
There are still at least 10 datalink avenues to chose from-not all of them dedicated weather datalink-including two that recently debuted and which well examine in this report. And as we go to press, Bendix/King is set to announce a lower-cost datalink system based on its economy KMD250 display. Well have more on that later. Further, within the next year, we expect more shakeouts and at least some vendors believe there will be economy choices in monthly fees for occasional datalink users.
At EAAs AirVenture show a year ago, we saw an intriguing datalink proposal from a company called WxWorx to broadcast weather data using the XM Radio satellite broadcast system. If that idea was a trial balloon, it apparently has legs; WxWorx is selling a portable datalink system to display on laptops and PDAs and will soon offer a certified system.
Who are these guys? WxWorx is a spin off of Baron Services, which provides Doppler radar hardware and weather data products to the commercial television market. It has developed its own hardware for a portable datalink system using XM Radio and a third company, Heads-Up Technology, has designed and will build a certified system, one for data only and a second dual-channel unit for weather and entertainment.
XM Radio has a couple of geostationary satellites parked over the U.S. and has eked out a market for subscription-based radio broadcasts. WxWorx represents XM Radios first foray into data transmission, something the company told us it always had plans to do. Aviation is likely to be the smallest market for data but if its successful, marine and terrestrial data may be XMs bread and butter in the datalink market.
Unlike the low-earth-orbit Orbcomm system, XMs two satellites-appropriately called Rock and Roll-are high power and relatively high bandwidth, although not as high as the ground-based Bendix/King system. Further, XM is true broadcast; a one-way system from the satellite to the ground, not request/reply, as is Orbcomm.
As with WSI, WxWorx provides its own weather products by enhancing NEXRAD and other government data. Subscription fees are $49 a month for all the data you want. (The broadcast is continuously updated automatically, whether the weather is viewed or not.)
The portable version of WxWorxs system consists of a receiver about the size and shape of a fat portable CD player, a GPS-style puck antenna and software to run on a Windows laptop computer. The complete portable system costs $829.97, to include the receiver and antenna, Windows-based software and a GPS interface. The antenna can be mounted externally on the roof of the aircraft or simply placed on the glareshield, according to WxWorx. We werent able to test the system in a moving aircraft but tried it on the ground, with the antenna placed outside the building. It appeared to have no trouble acquiring a strong signal.
As shown in the photos, WxWorx is a simple, menu-driven system that requires little instruction to operate. It initially shows a map of the U.S. and by clicking on the radar button, any available NEXRAD is depicted in the standard VIP colors. You can zoom in on the area with a cursor lasso and examine such details as direction of movement and cloud top information. The system depicts a small aircraft symbol on the map, based on independently supplied GPS position data.
For additional detail, WxWorx has something it calls a SCIT for storm center identification tracking. This feature pops up a detailed textual summary of rainfall rates, hail, movement and tops in the most intense part of the storm. You can also toggle on or off icons for VORs, airways and airports. Similarly, there are buttons for lightning strike data, winds aloft at various altitudes and real-time TFR plotting.
The system continually refreshes as new data becomes available and from what we could tell, the NEXRAD imagery showed little or no latency. The NEXRAD image itself is issued on a base cycle of 5 minutes. On an active weather day in Florida, all of the requests we asked for were delivered in under a minute, which is sufficient timeliness for conservative penetration of weak lines or scattered cells.
On a laptop, the WxWorx system is childs play to use but the downside is the usual nuisance of wires, connectors and the bulk of a notebook in the cockpit. Also, youll need a laptop with some processing horsepower to get the most out of this system. In the past, weve never found a notebook to be desirable in the cockpit. But if youre desperate for weather, the WxWorx system might be worth the hassle.
Two things we dont yet know: which panel-mount displays will this system work with and how will the interface operate? We like that zoom-in option. You can eyeball weather 400 miles away on course then zoom to see how bad it is. But can that be made to work on, say, a Garmin 530? Second, the Garmin/Echo Flight system has proven to be tender; stray electrical noise in the airplane can wreak havoc with it. We dont know if the same will be true of the XM Radio-based datalink but we suspect it will be more robust, given XMs broadcast performance.
In our estimation, the future of this system is the dual-channel receiver, one that does datalink and audio entertainment. WxWorx says that will be an eventual option. For now, the certified receiver is supposed to be available later this year for a price of $3750, including antenna.
Datalink weather for the UPSAT (now Garmin AT) MX20 comes later than anticipated for a few reasons. First, the initial product interface was to be the Satellink/Merlin, which came on strong a year ago but seems to have all but disappeared, due in part to delays by the FAA. WSI, a pioneer and proven serious player in the weather information industry, seems a more reliable source, although it has limited experience in onboard aircraft systems.
As the Merlin project dragged, UPSAT had to go back to the software drawing board and rework the interface with WSI. WSI has two products, the non-certified AV100 ($3495) is categorized as a portable system and it plays on EFBs and laptops. The certified system is called the AV200 ($4995) and is made for WSI by Sandia Aerospace. It now has PMA approval and as we go to press, theres one STC applicable to the Piper PA-32 series. All other installations have to be FAA field approved and frankly, we think this could be a problem for WSI.
Many FSDOs are making it as difficult as possible for shops to install anything under field approval rules. These early interfaces-FAA approval guinea pigs, if you will-could well have avionics shops and customers wondering what they got themselves into. In our view, companies such as Garmin and Avidyne have a leg up on WSI because theyre more experienced in helping shops overcome difficult installation hurdles, both technical and bureaucratic. Were told that by signing off weather, traffic and terrain systems, the FAA believes its taking on legal liability and that sooner or later, a pilot will make a smoking hole and lawyers will have a field day. Whether this is an accurate assessment is difficult to say but owners are increasingly shopping FSDOs to find a cooperative fed.
FAA shenanigans aside, WSIs AV200 has several good things going for it that may make future approvals increasingly easier. Its a simple system mechanically and electronically and it fits right in with the MX20s long list of external inputs. While we have limited experience flying the WSI system, we can say that the reliability of the streamed weather data was apparent from initial system power-up. Once we had it configured, we never had an interruption of the datastream, even while the aircraft was positioned close to hangars.
The AV200 receiver is a lightweight (less than 1 pound) remote box measuring 9 X 2.3 X .75 inches and it mounts anywhere theres space, usually in the tail. We like the antenna, a familiar GPS-style teardrop design made by Comant. In most cases, its design eliminates the need for the shop to play musical antennas, relocating existing antennas to ensure the performance of the weather system.
However, the antenna should be located as horizontally as possible- not exceeding 5 degrees of pitch-to avoid performance degradation. Unlike competing products using the Orbcomm network and systems using ground-based transmitters, the design of the AV200s antenna is easy to accommodate and this means less installation cost and shorter down times.
The receiver is connected to the display via RS232 protocol. As we go to press, the only panel-mounted MFD it interfaces with is the UPSAT/GarminAT MX20, software version 5.0 or higher.
There are no request/reply games to play with the WSI system. Weather data updates are automatically received every 5 minutes. When you select the FIS (Flight Information System) menu on the MX20, you can call up graphical and textual weather or system status for information on receiver communications.
For $599 a year, InFlight weather products include NOWrad radar graphics and echo tops, both proprietary WSI products and the more familiar graphical METARs, SIGMETs and AIRMETs. During our test flying, the average age of the data appeared to be 4 minutes. The age of each weather product is color coded. For example, a green graphical METAR indicates the data is less than 5 minutes old, yellow is between 5 and 10 minutes and red warns that the information is older than 10 minutes. While the age of the weather being viewed is important for strategic avoidance, its made clear that datalink systems arent supposed to be used for actual weather penetration. That is, of course, legal CYA. Were sure owners will use weather data for all kinds of tactical and strategic decisionmaking. After all, why have this expensive gear if youre not going to use it? Since the AV200 permanent mount system is new to the market, we have limited feedback on real-world use with the MX20.
Our initial impression is that its intuitive and a reliable performer as far as coverage, lock-on and datastream age are concerned. We like the way the MX20 software seamlessly integrates the InFlight data and the technical installation details are no-nonsense and to the point. We hope that FAA field approval of this system will become easier and it should, as more of the AV200 paperwork percolates through the systems.
Frankly, were hard pressed to make any. The datalink market is, if anything, in a deeper muddle than it was a year ago when we first examined the subject in depth. (See the September, 2002 issue of Aviation Consumer.)
Starting at the top of the heap, pricewise at least, the Bendix/King Wingman system appears to be a rock solid performer with blistering speed and, of course, a high price to match. But if you dont have the Bendix/King MFD, it wont play on any other box. We like the fact that Bendix/King is introducing a lower cost system based on the KMD250.
From there, the choices are iffy. Garmin appears to be the market leader in volume but as noted on page 8, the GDL49 gets mixed reviews, due to latency and noise issues. Garmin is aggressively working on improvements but tells us it sees no silver bullet fix. If customers want reliable five-minute downloads every time, the company concedes the GDL49 probably wont be capable of that in every aircraft.
Avidyne, which uses the same Orbcomm network Garmin does, insists that it can substantially improve its datalink performance. Color us skeptical, even though we think the Avidyne interface is top-notch. In our view, the Orbcomm architecture-due to satellite geometry and aircraft electrical noise issues-simply wont be capable of keeping up with satellite offerings from WxWorx and WSI. Were waiting for Avidyne to prove us wrong.
And how about the WxWorx XM Radio model? Garmin has already committed to WxWorx for the emerging G1000 primary flight display for the Cessna Mustang but we were told that the XM Radio version-to be called the GDL69-wont be available for GNS430/530 owners at this time, which was the end of August. Understandably, Garmin needs to assure itself that the XM Radio technology will work as promised but well boldly predict there will be an WxWorx option for the 400/500 series Garmins. Stay tuned.
Thus far-and its early-WSI InFlight is living up to the ad claims and then some. The link is fast and WSIs specialized weather products are impressive. But our worry is that it has only one display option, the well-regarded UPSAT (now GarminAT) MX20. Hows all this going to work as the market matures? Beats us.
WxWorx looks to be a powerful contender in this market but it isnt there yet. In our view, the portable version is a good value but the certified equipment isnt yet available and, more important, WxWorx doesnt have the panel-mount display options nailed down. Without those deals, WxWorx will have trouble getting traction in the current market, just as Merlin did a year ago.
Once again, well have to wait and see. (While were waiting, well speculate that one or more of the providers will soon launch a lower-priced monthly service which should expand the market.) As we ponder this market, we think the dream system might just be the Avidyne display with the WxWorx satellite receiver combined with an audio entertainment channel. That would definitely get our attention.