Until came the STC’d versions of the Dynon D10A and Garmin G5, primary EFIS upgrades were a stretch for lower budgets. But those days are gone forever thanks to a logical certification process that’s shifted from old-school TSO to performance-based STCs.
As we predicted last year for budget autopilots (we covered them in the April 2018 Aviation Consumer), we now see growing competition in the EFIS market.
At Sun ‘n Fun this past April, BendixKing poked this market when it showed its new XVue Touch EFIS. Meanwhile, Dynon brought its STC’d SkyView HDX and Aspen revealed the under-five-grand Evolution E5 Dual.
Yes, we think it’s only a matter of time before Garmin puts tremendous pressure on them all and announces an STC for its experimental G3X Touch—a system offered by no fewer than 17 LSA and kit manufacturers as standard equipment.
This article takes a broader look at the growing market, focusing on models for piston aircraft. We’ll cover EFIS upgrades for turbines separately.
From TSO to STC
It’s worth a review on how the retrofit EFIS market changed almost overnight, and it’s all about certification. The monumental change for the better in certification from TSO to STC turned out to be the break the industry waited years for.
Recall that the trend was started by EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) and Dynon Avionics when the two teamed to earn an AML-STC for the Dynon D10A EFIS. At the time (two years ago, roughly) the industry marveled that after years of exorbitant pricing from dated certification requirements, low-cost EFIS options that started life in the LSA and experimental market became a reality for certified aircraft.
Garmin didn’t sit on its hands and scored an AML-STC for its experimental G5 electronic flight instrument, offering it as a primary mini-PFD and also a version that’s a standalone electronic DG/HSI. Both are integral components to Garmin’s entry-level GFC500 autopilot.
Garmin, Avidyne and Aspen have proven what we already knew: It’s possible to offer a sub-$5000 retrofit EFIS by sidestepping the costly TSO process. There are buyers. Shops tell us that Garmin’s G5 rules the roost for the market’s lower end, filling the niche for which it was intended. Concerned that sidestepping the age-old TSO process might compromise reliability? Worry not—there’s still a boatload of effort that goes into an STC and certification via ASTM standards. The cost savings is partly made up from less paperwork.
Some credit goes to the FAR Part 23 rewrite for more logical testing methods, but it’s also the FAA’s shift in mentality to performance-based (STC) certification from one that was prescriptive (TSO) based that saves money.
“The old way of certifying avionics worked, but it wasn’t allowing for lower-cost technology in the marketplace,” said Aspen Avionics President and CEO John Uczekaj. Aspen, a company with huge regulatory success, recently announced the budget-based E5 Dual EFIS, which is certified as a primary, non-TSO EFIS.
There are no free passes under the STC process because when it comes to hardware, manufacturers still need to prove that a product will reliably perform in a wide variety of temperature and other environmental conditions.
“I still have to prove a product’s reliability, but the software-driven nature of today’s equipment means I can now use a performance-based process without having to generate reams of paper that is part of the old TSO process,” Uczekaj told us.
And the resulting lower-cost solutions made possible by this shift in certification effort have, in our view, set a new market expectation by which all retrofit EFIS systems will be judged. Read on for a rundown of the systems designed to be the primary EFIS, with navigation display and autopilot approach functionality. These aren’t intended for backup.
Bendixking XVUE Touch
The market waits for BendixKing to earn certification for its KI300 retrofit electronic attitude display, which was announced a few years ago. It’s designed to replace the mechanical KI256 flight director gyro that’s integral to a wide range of BendixKing and King autopilots. We’re told that final certification of the KI300 is still in the works and is expected in June 2018. The company has slipped on its projections more than once. But last month at Sun ‘n Fun BendixKing was quietly showing the XVue Touch integrated flight deck. Some media organizations didn’t even learn of the product until the show was over. For a product like this, we would have expected advance notice with a release embargo and more hoopla at the show.
The XVue is designed as a replacement for the entire six-pack instrument arrangement. The system doesn’t have an STC, so the first version (available now) is aimed at experimental aircraft.
Priced at $5499 without certification—and $12,495 when it eventually has a broad AML-STC—the XVue Touch’s specs are what we think the typical big-screen glass buyer expects. For starters, that’s a high-end display. The XVue’s graphics are indeed high-resolution (near 4K) on a 10.1-inch WUXGA color touch display with split-screen capability. The coated glass used on the display is anti-scratch, anti-glare and anti-smudge. The tech comes from the Honeywell division and was born from hardware used in the F-16 fighter aircraft’s avionics, according to BendixKing.
Displaying a full-screen PFD, an MFD and a combination of both, the 7.59-pound XVue Touch display has Honeywell’s SmartView synthetic vision and a wide 80-degree viewing angle. The MFD has a moving map, VFR and IFR charting and can display ADS-B weather and traffic data. The system is designed with a shallow feature set, as all critical functions can be accessed in fewer than two touches.
The XVue is primarily touchscreen and uses a 1.48 by 6.25 by 3.67 inch control panel housing four rotary knobs for commonly used functions like setting the heading bug (the system has third-party autopilot compatibility), setting the baro, course select and altitude bug. It also has built-in Wi-Fi (for database and software loads) and a USB-C port. The touch display has no bezel knobs or buttons. Flight data is derived from a solid-state ADAHRS, of course, plus a magnetometer and OAT sensor.
BendixKing said it would work on arranging a flight trial and we’ll provide an inflight report if it does.
The Dynon Avionics Skyview HDX suite was developed for the experimental market, but at press time Dynon has secured an AML-STC (and PMA) for Cessna 172 Skyhawk models—from the 172F through the 172S. Dynon said it is actively seeking additional STCs for single-and twin-engine applications.
We covered the Dynon Certified HDX system in the September 2017 issue of Aviation Consumer. As a recap, the Skyview HDX is partly self-contained in a single 10.32-inch PFD/MFD combo, which will require rework of the Cessna’s pilot’s instrument panel. Since the STC covers the removal of the aircraft’s vacuum system, installation should tidy things up behind the panel. Remove all of the round-gauge flight instruments—including the vacuum system plumbing—and put the 3-inch-deep display in place, although expect some sheet metal work to support the transformation.
While the Skyview HDX has a built-in GPS, full IFR approach capability comes from a remote third-party IFR navigator. Avidyne’s IFD500 and 400-series navigators and Garmin’s GTN and GNS-series navigators are recognized interfaces, but aren’t included.
Aside from the IFR GPS (the HDX has a VFR GPS built in), think of the Dynon suite as a soup-to-nuts system. It has Dynon’s approach-capable autopilot, an angle-of-attack system, engine instrumentation system, a 2020 mandate-compliant ADS-B Out transponder (plus ADS-B In) and synthetic vision. It won’t work with third-party autopilots, at least initially, and it won’t interface with analog navcomm gear.
At press time, the first field installations are underway and are available through US Sport Aircraft and Thrust Flight in Texas and Merrill Field Instruments in Alaska.
The Dynon Certified HDX requires the purchase of the STC ($2000), and the hardware is priced the same as it is for the experimental version. Dynon’s Cessna test bed we saw at recent shows was equipped with roughly $16,000 of Dynon gear, and the company is sticking to its projections that fly-away pricing will be in the mid-$20,000 range, but that could be higher depending on the aircraft and its configuration.
What Will Garmin Do?
Recall that late last year Garmin introduced its next-generation G500 TXi-series retrofit PFD/MFD products. Currently approved via TSO with an AML-STC, these are redesigned touchscreen displays that replace the G500/600. While the TXi is available in a 7-inch configuration, Garmin says the 10-inch G500 TXi is the most common because it can display engine data without a dedicated screen that’s required in 7-inch versions.
The 10-inch TXi with a four-cylinder EIS and SVT synthetic vision is $23,635. More than one shop told us that a typical installation might take two weeks of shop labor, or roughly $8000. Added up, the typical $30,000 fly-away price doesn’t include an IFR GPS or an autopilot.
Worth mentioning is that this single-screen (non-reversionary) setup still requires keeping standby flight instruments. This can be round-gauge altimeter, airspeed and attitude indicators, or Mid-Continent’s SAM or L3 Aviation’s ESI500 backup EFIS displays.
If these aren’t the low prices you’d expect in the current market, the TXi was developed before certification efforts shifted from TSO to STC. Still, Garmin sees a place for the TXi series and that’s in higher-valued airframes. For under $3000, the smaller G5 fills a niche that Garmin says is working just fine, and shops say they install a lot of them.
The G5 is required in the GFC500 autopilot interface, but using it for a legal backup for a TXi might require additional regulatory approvals. In the experimental world, the G5 is a belt-and-suspender backup to the G3X Touch and we think it should be included it in the TXi STC. In our view, the idea of a big-screen EFIS retrofit is to lose the round gauges.
Garmin was noncommittal when we asked if it plans to pursue an STC for the experimental G3X Touch, which has a starting price of $3895 for the version with a 10.6-inch display. Garmin’s senior business development manager, Bill Stone, is watching closely, but says the budget EFIS market has yet to establish itself, but we think it’s already defined: low cost.
But we agree with Stone when he reiterated that there’s more to product development than sidestepping TSO certification. Even if the G3X Touch was available in an STC’d version, interfacing it in a wide variety of aircraft that have federated radio stacks (that’s multiple brands and multiple vintages of equipment) will require sizable rework—which equates to purchasing newer equipment, including IFR GPS navigators. As we said, that’s a caveat with Dynon’s HDX, too.
“In all of our TSO-certified products—from the new TXi back to the vintage GNS navigators—we’ve incorporated a tremendous amount of interface capability so that they can drop into an airplane that has a hodgepodge of existing avionics,” he told us. Stone is making reference to the technical reality of wiring into both analog and digital equipment, as the GNS and GTN products do.
We eyeballed the external equipment compatibility list for Garmin’s TXi displays and indeed saw a deep interface potential. This includes everything from vintage King KX155 navcomm radios to third-party DME systems and a long list of approved autopilot interfaces—from ARC/Cessna to Century models.
The G3X Touch, with 10.6-inch landscape and 7-inch portrait display configurations, is limited to Garmin’s own G3X embedded autopilot and GFC/GNS digital navigators and navcomm equipment. It won’t work with analog receivers, but certainly Garmin knows how to make it play. It’s been building converters for years.
When asked why it doesn’t come standard with analog inputs, Stone pointed out that the G3X Touch is primarily sold in the kit market, where the airplane is built around the avionics. Same with OEM LSA applications. We are in a modern digital age, after all.
Engine data is interfaced with the GEA24 EIS module. One module can support up to six cylinders (two modules are required for a second engine); it works with turbines, radials and has a CAN bus interface for FADEC engines, including the Rotax 912iS.
What Aspen Had Already Done
Other than being capable of playing with analog and digital third-party avionics, Aspen’s new E5 Dual EFI (dual means attitude and heading) was launched with an interface to TruTrak’s Vizion autopilot. It also works with most legacy autopilots for heading command and nav approach coupling. The base E5 is $4995, but add $1000 for the external ACU to interface with legacy radios.
On the surface the E5 looks like an Aspen PFD always has, but it has brighter glass and faster processing power. The display is a 6-inch diagonal TFT Active Matrix LCD with 400 by 760 pixel count. The Evolution’s drop-in form factor is partly the reason for Aspen’s market success and the E5 is no different.
The E5 will typically be installed in the center of the six-pack arrangement of flight instruments and into the existing holes. There’s no cutting of the panel to make it fit, the STC approval includes the removal of the vacuum system and a backup attitude indicator isn’t required. Like the rest of the Evolution line, the self-contained rechargeable lithium-ion external backup battery can power the display for up to two hours.
You can also upgrade it, turning it into a 1000 Pro PFD and unlocking some major EFIS display functions that we think buyers might want as standard. That’s autopilot flight director, a base map and more importantly, an EHSI. The $6000 price is a tradeoff, although the E5 has a basic nav display. In its stock non-EHSI arrangement, the CDI and VDI data are displayed on the attitude portion of the screen, while a CDI data field sits on the lower portion of the display. No course control or flight plan overlay.
As a comparison, Aspen’s TSO’d 1000 Pro PFD is priced at $10,995, and around $16,000 installed.
Our conclusion is that the market fully expects manufacturers to offer lower-cost EFIS displays by pursuing wide-reaching STCs, just as Aspen has done with its E5 display. We favor it because it hits what we think is the market sweet spot. When paired with TruTrak’s Vizion autopilot, fly-away pricing that’s well under $15,000 is a reality. Garmin’s G5 comes close but with a smaller display than all of the other brands, that doesn’t include an IFR navigator. This will add $10,000 and more to any EFIS installation—for a single GPS.
As for a timely AML-STC certification of BendixKing’s XVue Touch suite, we hope the company pulls it off because that stirs competition. But that doesn’t necessarily mean an instant success. Our sense is the shop network is jaded after multiple BendixKing products missed the mark on certification deadline. This includes the KSN770 (now certified, but still not matured) and the KI300, which is still awaiting approval. In our view, a huge part of the XVue’s success rides on BendixKing’s ability to market it, to both end customers and shops.
As for Dynon, its current AML-STC is limited to the Cessna 172, which is a good start, but still misses a large chunk of the market. Moreover, we think its fair price would be even more palatable if the STC were adjusted to not require the autopilot.
Last, we think there are buyers for an STC’d G3X Touch, although we can’t say in what numbers. For any sizable sales volume, we think it needs to be priced well south of $8,000 and work with third-party autopilots and vintage avionics. If it was, that would strategically place the G3X Touch in the mid-priced category, in between the flagship TXi and entry-level G5.