A Flood of Datalink

Dont look now, but there are nearly a dozen systems to pick from. The satellite broadcast options look best to us.

The world of general aviation is full of surprises and mysteries, none more baffling than why so many companies want to get into the business of aircraft datalink. don’t get us wrong, we think its a terrific idea and we hope it takes off. Having NEXRAD radar images available at the touch of a key is an undeniable safety enhancer.

But at last count, there were at least 10 proposed providers of this service, each of which purports to be better than the other guys offering. We wont be surprised to see another datalink product or service emerging before the end of the year.

While were thrilled to have choices and we think competition keeps prices in line, were also wizened enough to know that GA datalink is a tiny little market niche that only a fraction of aircraft owners will want. Therefore, there’s almost certain to be a painful shakeout before we know who the reliable, long-term providers of this service will be. The crystal ball is still too cloudy to make any predictions with assurance.

Datalink Basics
The simplest way to look at datalink options is to divide the market into two major service types, generic phone/internet options that permit access to standard online weather services and dedicated datalink options that offer only weather access or perhaps some messaging.

The generic options are best thought of as airborne-capable internet providers. The comm link is via conventional cellphone or satellite uplink/downlink. If you have a data-capable airborne phone link, you can also access other weather information found on the internet, not to mention standard e-mail and Web browsing. But when shopping datalink technology, compare capabilities carefully, for the services provided vary by provider.

The dedicated datalink systems use either satellite links or ground-based VHF or cellular technology to provide certain weather products in the cockpit for display on an MFD, a laptop or a PDA.

The FAAs share of this action comes in the form of whats called FIS-B for flight information services broadcast. FIS packages certain weather products from NWS sources and makes these available in a form suitable for datalinking.

The FAA has contracted two providers-ARNAV and Bendix/King/Honeywell-to set up and operate a ground-based network to provide FIS-B data to all comers. Text-based weather products are free but the two contractors are allowed to charge for delivery of graphical products.

Free is somewhat of a misnomer in this context, however. In order to receive the uplink, you’ll need to buy and install a dedicated airborne receiver and antenna-either Bendix/Kings KDR510 or ARNAVs data receiver-plus a suitable screen to display either text or images. As currently construed, the FIS system continuously broadcasts weather data which the airborne equipment receives and stores. Its there for retrieval whenever the pilot wants it.

But the FAA isn’t the only weather provider. Jeppesen provides datalink weather through Satellink/Merlin while WSI will provide its weather products through a datalink system it recently purchased, Pilot Weather Advisor. Other providers are using their own or proprietary weather services.

Broadcast vs. Request
Another way of slicing the datalink loaf is to divide providers into broadcast versus request/reply options. Broadcast providers can best be thought of as an airborne equivalent of The Weather Channel. The data is continuously broadcast and viewed only when its needed.

Request/reply requires that a specific set of weather products for an area be requested and then sent to the provider who then returns the requested data, much like any Web-based weather site. Each technology has its pros and cons.

The telephone options from AirCell and Blue Sky Network offer a more complete communications package, albeit it a potentially higher buy-in and/or monthly cost. Besides phone service, you also get conventional Web access and e-mail capability, if thats important. And if it is, you’ll have to decide that up front.

On the other hand, the phone-based providers are request/reply, meaning that when you want weather, you have to establish the connection, ask for what you want and wait for it to be delivered. If youre steaming along at 200 knots looking at a wall of black clouds ahead, this may be more hassle than you have time and patience for. With a dedicated broadcast system-say Bendix/Kings Wingman-the weather data is always there waiting to be retrieved.

Except when it isn’t. One disadvantage of continuous broadcast from ground stations is that its altitude sensitive. If the antenna site happens to be on the airport, no problem. But if it isn’t, you may have to take off to get your first look at fresh weather.

This is where satellite-based delivery enjoys an important advantage over data delivered from ground-based sources: its available almost anywhere, at any altitude.

This means that if youre idling on the ramp in the pouring rain at some outlying berg wondering where the edge of that squall line is, you’ll be able to snag a NEXRAD pix to have a look.

What follows is a snapshot listing of the current datalink providers suitable for small aircraft GA applications. We havent included players plying the bizjet/commercial crowd because we don’t see these as realistic options for small aircraft. In the coming months, as these systems mature, we’ll be flight testing each one in detail.

As we reported in our June 2002 issue, AirCell is a provider of conventional cellular phone service for light aircraft and, as such, its datalink options are of the generic variety.

In other words, its like a dial-up internet service.

AirCell sells three types of hardware, ranging from the entry-level Guardian 1000 at $3495 to the $11,739 AGT.02 cellular system that provides voice cellular and data in the air and on the ground.

AirCells ground sites are nearly all installed and coverage at mid-altitudes, although not seamless, is acceptable in most parts of the country. (The less expensive equipment works only in the air, not on the ground. you’ll need to spend more for dual air/ground capability.) And unlike terrestrial cellular, AirCell doesnt automatically hand off all calls cell-to-cell.

Service costs vary by package and include a monthly cost, plus a per-minute charge. At the low end, you’ll pay $29.95 a month, plus $1.99 a minute for connect time. Were told that it takes about a minute to download a typical NEXRAD map at 9600 baud.

For datalink applications, AirCell provides a $99.95 software package called Flight Guardian that works on laptops or Compaq iPAQ PDAs. Flight Guardian is a weather fetcher that logs onto a DUAT provider and retrieves as much or as little weather you specify. You can also log onto other sites, such as WeatherTAP, and download other weather products.

Pros: AirCell is a full-featured communications service that includes e-mail, fax and voice. Datalink is just one option. Data rate is moderately fast and users say connections are reliable.

Cons: On a per-use basis, AirCell is relatively expensive and without buying the pricier equipment, it wont work on the ground. Lack of coverage is an issue at low altitudes and the future of airborne cellular is far from assured.

Anywhere WX
Control Vision has made a name for itself with its clever Anywhere Map software that, with the addition of a GPS, turns a PDA into a color moving map. The company followed up the map product in the fall of 2001 with what it calls Anywhere WX, a datalink product that uniquely uses either satellite or AirCell terrestrial datalink.

Although we like having the choice of two data acquisition methods, this both complicates the buying process and, to a degree, appears to raise the buy-in cost. And like Echo Flight, the display is a portable, with all the attendant wiring and mounting hassles.

First, the satellite option, which uses the GlobalStar multi-satellite phone system. For $2995, Control Vision sells the iPAQ, GlobalStar tri-mode phone, GPS and related hardware. If youre already an Anywhere Map user, the upgrade package costs $2199, to include the phone and software.

The GlobalStar monthly fee (through Control Vision) is $24.95, plus a 99 cents-per-minute connect fee. Control Vision offers its own dedicated weather service through a vendor that offers products we’ll beyond the FAA FIS basics. The GlobalStar phone works primarily as a wireless modem but it can also be used for voice calls while airborne if the antenna can get a clean shot at the sky. Otherwise, an external antenna is recommended.

If you prefer AirCell, Control Vision offers that option, too, but its more expensive. Control Vision recommends AirCells Guardian 1000 phone system plus its own AirCell weather package, which includes a Compaq iPAQ. Total cost for both is about $6000.

Pros: Like Echo Flight, Anywhere Wx is quick to get into, albeit not cheap. The weather function is seamlessly integrated with the navigation function.

Cons: Its still a portable, requiring yoke mounts, wiring, modules and so forth, plus a phone occupying the glareshield if you go with the GlobalStar option.

ARNAV fielded datalink technology long before most of the present companies had even considered it. During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, ARNAV provided graphical datalinking with two-way messaging capability to all aircraft flying over the Olympic venues. It has since applied that experience to win an FIS contract from the FAA, along with Bendix/King.

As of July, ARNAVs ground-based VHF datalink network is still in progress with good coverage in the east, Florida and in the northwest, but spotty coverage through the midwest and none in the southwest or in California.

ARNAVs datalink hardware is the DR-100 Digital Weather Receiver, its version of Bendix/Kings pricey KDR510. As with Bendix/King and by FAA contract, textual weather products on this system are free while graphic products are billed on a per-use basis. ARNAV plans to offer two datalink services, WxLink and ARNet. The former is a one-way-only weather datalink, the latter a two-way system suitable for messaging and flight tracking.

Pros: Ground network and VHF link promises high data rate and good reliability in covered areas.

Cons: ARNAV trails other companies in deployment and customer response, in our view. Lack of built-out network coverage may be a deal killer against satellite systems.

Although a newcomer to datalink, Avidyne is a pioneer in the MFD market, having broken into the field with a range of well-regarded color displays. It has teamed with Orbcomm-a provider of services through a low-earth orbit satellite system-to offer a unique datalink service using something called narrowcasting. This system is expected to ship by early this fall.

Although LEO-satellite-based systems have traditionally been request/reply, Avidynes FlightMax Datalink Weather Service emulates broadcast data by automatically requesting weather along your route, storing it for future retrieval, just as a pure broadcast system does.

Avidyne offers its own subscriber/communicator-the DX50-for $2995, plus antenna. Plus it has introduced a new MFD product called the FlightMax EX5000 which incorporates the datalink subscriber communicator inside the display. Cost is $9000; all you need is an antenna and the system can share a standard comm antenna.

Fees include a one-time $99 start-up fee, plus per-use charges for each weather product downloaded. Avidyne will run its own data center and provide products directly from the NWS. At press time, we werent able to determine exact costs but Avidyne says typical usage might run in the $30 a month range.

Pros: The EX5000 is a cost-effective way to buy an MFD with datalink thrown in for free. Cost-per-use is attractive and we like the narrowcasting concept.

Cons: you’ll be downloading and paying for weather products you wont see or need unless you proactively use the systems menu choices to toggle the auto request feature on and off, as needed.

In many ways, Bendix/King leads the evolution in practical aircraft datalink with its Wingman service, which it wasted little time in fielding. As noted, Bendix/King is one of two providers for the FAAs FIS weather data. As of mid-July, its ground-based VHF network is nearly complete for the eastern U.S. with plans to fill it out along the west coast later this year.

For hardware, Bendix/King sells the KDR510 datalink receiver-$5546-which receives the continuous broadcast from the ground stations for output on an MFD. Textual weather is free with this system while graphical products such as graphical METARs and NEXRAD imagery is all-you-can-eat for a flat monthly fee. On a single-year sign-up basis, the monthly fee is $49.95 ranging to $59.95 for a single-month signup.

Pros: VHF VDL Mode 2 datalink is fast and reliable when in range of stations. Data is continuously downloaded and is instantaneously available with no pilot action.

Cons: Buy-in is expensive and although the monthly fee seems reasonable, you’ll still spend some $600 a year for the service. Coverage is predicted to be complete but there are dead spots. It might not work we’ll on the ground.

Echo Flight
Echo Flight is a small start-up company that got into aircraft datalink early, in 1998. It surprised show goers at Oshkosh with its Strato Cheetah and Flight Cheetah, which are dedicated portable color displays designed specifically to display weather products overlayed on a color moving map.

However, these arent all-purpose MFDs but portable displays, requiring the usual nest of wires for antenna and power input. Thus, although a pioneer in the field, Echo Flight hasnt exactly taken the market by storm.

Echo Flight uses the Orbcomm LEO system to deliver weather via request/reply from Meteorlogix, a new company recently formed by the consolidation of DTN Weather Services, Kavouras and Weather Services Corp.

Echo Flights subscriber/communicator can output its data to Echo Flights own Flight Cheetah FL270 color display or to a laptop, for which Echo Flight provides the necessary hardware and software. In addition, Garmins new GDL 49 datalink system is also based on Echo Flight technology.

The complete Flight Cheetah package-which has its own GPS and doubles as a color moving map-sells for $5995. Other options include the subscriber/communicator with GPS and antenna suitable for laptop use for $1795 or the subscriber/communicator and antenna only-you provide your own GPS-for $995.

In both of the latter cases, Echo Flight includes a serial cable for use with a laptop. Beyond these costs, Echo Flight bills on both a monthly and per-use basis. At the low end, pay $9.95 a month plus what Echo Flight calls standard transaction charges, which are $1 per transaction. A transaction is a request for any available weather product-text or graphic-or an e-mail.

For $29.95, you get three free transactions a month, plus Echo Flights AeroPlanner service, an online planning service that offers flight and trip planning and charts and plates. At $55 a month, you get 10 free transactions plus digital updates for FAA/NACO approach plates on CD-ROM.

Pros: Relatively cheap buy-in and simple installation. Satellite access promises good coverage at all altitudes, albeit with occasionally slow request/reply times. Alliance with Garmin is a plus.

Cons: If you don’t like bulky portables, you wont like Echo Flight. Also, its a small player in a market thats rapidly becoming overserved. Its fair to ask if it will survive and prosper.

Garmin/Echo Flight
When Echo Flight rolled out its datalink product four years ago, Garmin evidently liked what it saw for it entered into an alliance with the company to produce what has become the GDL 49. Like Echo Flight, Garmins datalink product uses the Orbcomm system and includes an Echo Flight subscriber/communicator inside the GDL 49, which is a remote box that finds the satellites via a conventional comm antenna.

Think of this system as a refined version of the Echo Flight portable set-up with no wires and a better panel-mounted display. When set-up to display on Garmin GNS430/530 series, the system is relatively seamless, in our view.

The GDL 49, which has been delayed by months, is finally shipping this summer at a cost of about $3495 and you will, of course, need some kind of display to view the recovered data. (Garmin has plenty to pick from.)

Once youve installed the hardware, the sign-up and per-use rates are identical to the Echo Flight offerings, making it potentially one of the cheaper options, if used sparingly. Weve flown with this system and we’ll have a fuller report in a future issue.

Pros: Garmin is a gold-plate avionics company with proven staying power and although we have doubts about Echo Flights survival, we suspect Garmin will make this system work.

Cons: If Orbcomm crumps, all the eggs are in one basket. Like the other satellite offerings, retrieval can be slow.

Iridium Options
The Iridium satellite phone system, a network launched by Motorola that soon went into bankruptcy, has since been resurrected, thanks to a major contract for comm services from the Department of Defense. At least two companies are selling equipment to use this system; it can be used for both voice and data from the aircraft, if there’s an external antenna.

As we reported in the June 2002 issue of Aviation Consumer, Icarus Instruments is marketing a system called SatTalk II, which uses the Iridium system. Its a portable installation in the cockpit that also requires a permanently mounted TSOd antenna.

The phone is a Motorola 9505 selling for about $1500. For an additional $4495, Icarus provides the cabling, antenna, yoke mount and an adapter to marry the phone to an aircraft audio panel.

For data, Iridium operates in two modes: You can dial your own ISP to connect at 2400 baud or use the systems direct internet connect which has proprietary compression software to bring the effective data rate to 10,000 baud. For display, youd use a laptop or PDA.

Iridium rates are typically $20 per month plus $1.50 per minute of use for data or voice. As with the other systems, plan on a typical NEXRAD map costing about a buck.

Competing with Icarus is Blue Sky Network, which offers a range of products based on the Iridium network, including the aforementioned Motorola phone, headset/audio adapters, yoke mounts and an external antenna.

Coming up later this year, Blue Sky says it will introduce a product called the BlueSkyLink P-1000, which the company describes as a two-way packet modem that, using onboard GPS, can issue tracking reports and ETAs independent of the ATC-based FlightExplorer network. It will also allow real-time messaging.

Blue Sky offers its own sign-up and per-minute rate charges within the Iridium price structure. The one-time initial activation fee is $50 and there are four rate plans ranging from $39.95 to $299.95 per month, each with its own number of free minutes, ranging from 10 to 200 minutes.

Pros: Iridium-based datalink may be the quickest and most painless way to get into datalink and you have the additional bonus of a portable phone that will work anywhere. Costs are strongly use based, which we like.

Cons: you’ll need to fuss with a laptop and Web sites at low data rates; there’s currently no dedicated way to interface Iridium-based datalink with panel-mount MFDs.

Yet another satellite-based datalink service is being offered by Satellink Technologies in a system called Merlin. Instead of request/reply with LEO satellites, Merlin uses continuous broadcast from geostationary satellites, the Mobile Satellite Ventures L-band service.

Merlins satellite receiver-the MA-SK1-will sell for an introductory price of $3495 and requires a 3-inch blade antenna. As a deal sweetener, Merlin will throw in one year of subscriber service for free. After that, its $45 a month for unlimited use.

If this system proves robust and reliable, it may promise to provide the best of both worlds; the continuous availability of broadcast without limited/no access on the surface due to line-of-sight limitations.

The Merlin system uses a dedicated receiver to gather data on a continuous basis. The pilot then chooses what he would like to see, from textual METARS to NEXRAD graphics and even graphical TFRs. (Jeppesen is Merlins weather provider.)

We like the fact that the Merlin data can be displayed on MFDs, PDAs and laptops. Merlin has already worked out the UPSAT/Apollo MX-20 interface and others are in the works.

Pros: Geostationary broadcast may be the most versatile of all of the systems, since its theoretically always available without altitude limitations. Merlin proposes to include other services such as flight planning and FlightExplorer.

Cons: Merlin is a relatively new company and thus untested. Further, continuous broadcast demands relatively high monthly rates which you pay whether you use the data or not.

WSI is we’ll known as a provider of weather services for many industries and its about to jump into datalink with both feet. WSI bought a system called Pilot Weather Advisor from Vigyan, which developed it under a NASA small business innovation grant extending back to the early 1990s.

WSIs entry will be similar to Satellink/Merlin, a broadcast system using a geostationary satellite on the L-band. Weather products and services will be tiered in sophistication, probably to include some proprietary products unique to WSIs strength as a weather provider.

Cost for the box will be $2995 introductory and $3450 for what WSI is calling a non-certified system. We don’t know if the TSOd version will cost more; watch for more details this fall, when WSI begins shipping. WSI will charge $49.95 a month for aviation service.

Pros: Same as Merlin, with the added advantage that WSI has all but unlimited ability to devise its own new aviation-specific weather services.

Cons: Again, similar to Merlin, although WSI is an established, long-term player.

We were amused by what one avionics sales rep-who begged to remain nameless-said about datalink: Its sorta like sex; its hard to get it but great when you finally do. Ummm…yeah, we think we agree with that.

At the moment, the market is too fragmented and flooded with choices from companies that may or may not be alive five years from now. Unless you can afford or don’t care about having an orphaned system, we think the wisest choice is wait this one out. You got this far without datalink, another year or two wont hurt.

Judging the technology on paper, we think the ones to watch are Merlin, WSI and Garmin. Although slightly more expensive, the geostationary broadcast option strikes us as the most elegant and utilitarian. Although Garmins Echo Flight LEO technology has limitations, Garmin also has the largest installed base of displays and if L-band takes off-we think it will-we predict Garmin will have its own version or, at minimum, Merlin and WSI will play on Garmin displays.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Checklist.”
Click here to view “Datalink Compared.”
Click here to view “What Data, Exactly?”
Click here to view “Contact Information.”