Going Direct: Vexing Questions At The Aircraft Electronics Show

The CES of aircraft featured few new products but lots of interesting questions about aviation’s digital future.

The 60th edition of the Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA) trade show in New Orleans got underway on Monday, and the first day of the show was an eye opener, but not for the usual reasons.

Usually at this show, which is designed to put avionics dealers in front of avionics manufacturers, the big news has to do with big announcements, everything from a blockbuster new flat-panel system to the incorporation of a new technology into our panels in a potentially game-changing way.

Such was not the case at the 2017 AEA. Avidyne did announce a cool new software upgrade that brings synthetic vision to its IFD 540, magically transforming it into an IFD 550 (the volume knob of which is said to go all the way “to 11” though we weren’t able to confirm that). The large-screen multifunction navigator, which is a plug-and-play replacement for the Garmin GNS-530, goes for around $15,000, which is a great deal considering if you are indeed replacing a Garmin 530W, that unit is still worth a big chunk of its original retail price, sweetening the deal on the IFD 550 substantially.

And Garmin did announce its G1000 NXi flat-panel avionics system, which we first reported on in our January issue of Plane & Pilot magazine. So while NXi is cool news, it’s not particularly new news.

No, the big news at AEA was the FAA and what it was going to do about expediting approvals of products approved for the experimental and LSA markets for use on conventional Part 23 light aircraft. The first two of those products, the Garmin G5 and the Dynon D-10A and D-100 attitude indicator replacements, first hit the market almost a year ago and everyone in the industry has been waiting with bated breath for the next set of approvals to come through.

Wisely, neither Dynon nor Garmin is saying a word about what or when that might come, but neither company is denying that their digital attitude indicators are probably just the beginning of this trend, though neither company would comment on any future products, understandably. Still, everyone is speculating about the situation, those with some inside knowledge and those with nothing but a lot of hope.

Here are the big questions:

  • What kinds of products will the FAA allow? It’s widely speculated upon that the next product down the pipe will be a digital LED HSI instrument, though we have no information about what companies might be working with the feds on such a product. There are conflicting reports about whether or not this new approval will allow that digital heading and attitude instrument to provide that data to an approved autopilot. We hope the FAA does allow that.
  • Will a digital autopilot system be next to come, and if so, what will the multiple aircraft certification requirements be? Autopilots are expensive to buy and to install, for good reason. They are sophisticated systems that require a lot of installed hardware to work. As you probably know, STEC autopilots, manufactured by Genesys Aerosystems, dominate the aftermarket. While they are a lot less expensive to buy and install than most of the competition, they still aren’t an easy buy for owners of relatively low-value planes like existing Skylanes or Arrows, for instance. So will new, lower-cost autopilots, possibly from Genesys itself, transform the market? It’s the question everyone wants to the know the answer to.
  • Will consumers wait for answers before they buy existing products? The answer seems to be that some potential customers will do just that. For example, I’ve spoken to a few owners of small planes who want a new HSI but who are waiting to see if a low-cost digital version comes online. For other products, will the wait be worth it? Will there be entire flat panel systems coming down the pike? I do not know. Honestly, I don’t. And as one of those light airplane customers looking to upgrade my electronics, I wish I did.

I look forward to providing answers to all these questions. When that happens and what the news will be... it’s a mystery to me as well.

If you want more commentary on all things aviation, go to our Going Direct blog archive.

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