Flat is the new black

Canada’s role in the avionics market

Rob Seaman

If you or your firm happen to be in the process of getting a new, from-the-factory aircraft, chances are that the cockpit will look dramatically different from your old and trusted machine. Flat is in, as they say, and the cockpit world has gone solidly MFD (Mutli-Function Display). This technology incorporates all the old and standard flight assets in a new and functional way and, simply put, is stunning. Things are easier to see and find based on your priority of selection and screen distribution. If you want to customize how your display is set, you have a number of options. Add to that the ability to include and incorporate new advancements, and flying is once again moving the safety and efficiency bar in the right direction – up! The even better news is that if you’re not waiting for that “new aircraft smell” to arrive in your hangar, you can still bring all the benefits and attributes of the new avionics world into your old aircraft.

For many years, most of the avionics innovations that we heard of were focused on the passenger environment, and related to entertainment systems and satcom. That trend does continue to a somewhat lesser extent today, with recent introductions of high-speed and broadband capabilities allowing use of laptops, iPhone/BlackBerry devices, gaming consoles and other business or entertainment tools. One of the leading lights globally in the high capacity/high speed data transfer and interface field is Ottawa-based EMS SATCOM. Its primary focus is business and military aviation, and air transport markets through partner relationships. Allied with Inmarsat, EMS products include terminals, antennae and radomes, and cabin networking systems. EMS launched the first commercially available product approved for use with the SwiftBroadband network in 2007 and has been building on that success since. During the most recent NBAA, the EMS Sky Connect group unveiled their Forté AirMail Communication Service. This new product boasts the most affordable access to e-mail via smartphones in aircraft today. This service uses the Iridium network to provide e-mail access to any WiFi-enabled smartphone or PDA while in flight. The addition of e-mail complements EMS Sky Connect’s existing Forté products for voice and text, providing a complete office suite in the sky. The Forté AirMail suite is priced at $25,995 including WiFi interface, Iridium transceiver, and antenna.

Another Canadian notable making a name around the world for passenger and cabin flight support is TrueNorth Avionics. Also Ottawa-based, its focus is on corporate aviation products developed to offer a combination of performance with built-in growth capability. Its key product is called Chorus – an easy to use handset that features an intuitive graphical interface, menu-driven commands and a big, bright colour display. Exclusive customizations include a choice of splash screens, ring tones and handset materials (including custom hardwoods to match an aircraft’s interior). The SimphonChorus system can expand to meet future needs thereby avoiding obsolescence. The Chorus system also acts as the router for any WiFi-enabled phone, laptop or device allowing the users to access the Internet and e-mails, or share devices such as printers that may be installed in the aircraft.

Moving from the cabin to the cockpit environment, the front end is where today’s main focus of avionics innovations really lies. As it has been said, it is like going from steam drive to the jet age in one simple movement. Norm Matheis, regional marketing manager – Canada for Universal Avionics, reports that while his firm saw good activity in Canada in the last quarter of 2009 for its new Cockpit Voice and Flight Data Recorder (CVFDR) line, it plans to work with OEMs and dealers in 2010 to increase that business. The big focus in 2010 in Canada for Universal will be on WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) FMS retrofit opportunities. According to Matheis, the benefits and safety case for that are strong. WAAS is without question an essential part of any planned or proposed avionics upgrade.

The primary objective in establishing WAAS is to increase safety for aviation. Current GPS systems are neither accurate nor reliable enough to be accepted as a sole means of navigation. By improving the accuracy, availability and integrity of GPS, WAAS increases the navigation capability for all classes of aircraft in all phases of flight. WAAS provides corrected GPS signal data that reduce errors which may be caused by temperature, baro mis-set effects, ionospheric conditions, solar activity, atmospheric conditions, etc. WAAS provides greater GPS system position accuracy – from 100 metres to seven metres, according to FAA estimates. This also means that it may be used as a primary means of navigation and will allow users to plan GPS approaches to both their destination as well as an alternate. WAAS provides Category I precision approach accuracy of 16 metres laterally and four metres vertically for ILS-like performance without ground-based landing aids, detects smaller errors faster than the basic GPS signal, and notifies users faster – within 6.2 seconds.

While not in widespread use here in Canada yet, WAAS is readily available throughout the U.S. As Dave Hume, Rockwell Collins regional sales manager, notes, here on the home front we are catching up and accordingly many operators are taking advantage of planned upgrades and OEM trade incentives to include WAAS in their next shop call. In terms of cost, a survey of the industry reports that a typical installation and upgrade – depending upon the existing FMS and GPS and their upgradeability – should cost anywhere from $175,000 to $200,000. As Hume notes, while not inexpensive, the benefits outweigh the costs and, as noted before, not only enhance performance and safety today, but will add to resale value later.

As to the question of when we may expect more WAAS friendly skies here at home – in a recent Universal Avionics customer news flyer, Jeff Cochrane, manager of CNS Service Design, Nav Canada, wrote that the nation’s civil air navigation services provider is in the process of replacing obsolete ground-based navigation approach capability, such as Localizer Back-Courses, with RNAV (GNSS) procedures with LNAV/VNAV and LPV minima, wherever possible.

According to Cochrane, the development of LPV procedures in Canada has been hampered by the availability of the current design criteria (FAA 8260.54A) and by the lack of accurate airport survey data required for design. It is expected, he reports, that the latest criteria will be approved for use in Canada this year. Coupled with this, he says that Nav Canada is investigating further potential improvements to airport access enabled by WAAS. An ionospheric study into the potential for application of decision altitudes as low as 200 feet above the touchdown zone on LPV approaches in Canada is underway. Results are expected early in 2010 and, if positive, will lead to lower minima on select LPV procedures.

The good news is that if an operator really wants to upgrade or enhance its current aircraft, the timing could not be better. The technology is ready and the manufacturers are offering incentives to help make buying easier. And by all accounts, the airspace in Canada will be catching up to the rest of the world soon. So the question is – do you want to live with outdated technology or are you ready to be one of the cool kids and get yourself out of the dark ages?