Believe it or not, its been only five years next month since the first iPad was released. Even though it sometimes seems the tablet computers were developed for aviation use, its been even less time since they were first used in a cockpit. The fact is many pilots these days cant imagine life without a tablet computer of some sort enhancing their situational awareness or displaying a needed chart. And as more and more performance, capability and convenience were shoehorned into them, it was just a matter of time before they were embraced by avionics manufacturers.
That threshold was crossed some time ago-witness LSAs with no avionics in the panel save an iPad dock-but only recently were tablet computers allowed to connect wirelessly to installed and certified avionics. Beginning in 2012, Aspen Avionics and other companies developed the Connected Panel concept, and last year Garmin began delivering products implementing its Connext communication standard. Both enable wireless communication between a tablet and installed systems, primarily for displaying ADS-B IN traffic and weather. But they also allow flight plan transfers and activation, sort of a remote control for your flivver. How does all this work? Whats necessary to allow a tablet to talk to your panel? And what other capabilities are available?
The 35-year-old Cessna 172 I fly was due to have a Garmin GDL-88 installed as part of its ADB-S compliance. The installation was to include a Flightstream 210 box (see the sidebar on the opposite page for details on the Flightstream 110/210). To learn more about the new avionics capabilities, I attended a workshop presented by Garmin about the ADB-S equipment and how it was supplemented by the Flightstream unit.
The workshop served as a reminder that the mid-1990s technology preserved in Garmins venerable GNS430/530 series is starting to show its age: ADS-B INs traffic and weather would display well on the later GTN-series screens, but wouldnt be quite so spectacular on the GNS units most of us are still flying with today. This is due to the processing power required for the display, which the GNS series lacks. The good news is how Flightstream overcomes those limitations by putting navigation, weather and traffic on the larger iPad, with its bright, clear display and greater processing capabilities.
One of the big complaints about ADS-B INs traffic and weather is that adding a full-boat ADS-B IN and OUT installation to the typical personal airplane doesnt offer benefits worth the expense, at least given current requirements and the data available via the technology from the FAA. The calculus is different when considering the less-expensive portable gear used to receive and display ADS-B IN traffic and weather.
It seemed from the presentation that what little benefit to be gained would be made worse by displaying traffic and weather on the small panel-mounted screens. For the additional $900 or so a Flightstream 210 costs-plus installation-all this should hopefully integrate into something spectacular. So how did it all turn out?
All Together Now
In mid-December, the Flightstream 210 was installed, following the GDL installation in October due to delays in the Flightstream release. There were some initial teething problems with all the new Garmin equipment talking to each other, which stemmed from a GTX 300 transponder trying to out-talk the GDL 88 to the GNS 430. Once the bugs were worked out, with help from the local avionics shop and the engineers at Garmin, it was put to the test.
One of the neat things about the Flightstream 210 is its size: Its no bigger than a fountain pen case and seemingly doesnt weigh as much as a small cup of coffee to go. I was amazed at how things came together after the bugs were worked out. First, I planned a trip on the EFB apps trip planning page, then obtained a DUATS briefing and filed my flight plan. Next, the airplane and its avionics were fired up. Garmins Connext standard is Bluetooth-based, and pairing the Flightstream 210 to my iPad running Pilot required about a minute after the 430 came online. I fed the flight plan to the 430 via a dropdown menu and the 430 asked whether to accept it. As I was running through the checklist, I received a push notification via the app with a revised route from ATC. As soon as I responded to the notification, the app sent the revised flight plan to the 430. Its the same basic technology available in many airliner cockpits via the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS) and/or controller-pilot data link communications (CPDLC).
Using the apps full-size map mode, I was able to see all TIS-B traffic from ATC as well as ADS-B OUT-equipped traffic in the area, with N-numbers included. Another page showed me the location of the ADS-B towers in the area as well as the status of the FIS-B products. As with all market-leading EFB apps these days, this one has many other features including a synthetic-vision page, but I only had a chance to briefly look at it during the short shakedown flight. The capabilities and features available in the cockpit from linking the app and the panel through Flightstreams Connext were truly impressive, to say the least.
As I mentioned, the plane I fly is a simple 35-year-old Cessna 172. However, its well-equipped, sporting an S-TEC System 50 autopilot, GPSS, a GNS 430 and now the newly installed GDL 88 with Flightstream 210. Using the new avionics, I was able to plan a flight and prepare the avionics with a minimum of fuss. Updating was a breeze and almost automatic. Once at a safe altitude after takeoff, I was able to fly the chosen route-with the help of the GPSS and the autopilot-using only the iPad and an occasional manual altitude change. In other words, I used what essentially is a wireless remote control to program and manage the navigation avionics in the airplanes instrument panel while using that same device to display traffic and weather data in near-real-time. In a 172.
I have seen the future
Many owners are considering their various options for meeting the 2020 ADS-B equipment mandate, which vary greatly depending on existing avionics, the aircrafts mission and the perceived value of ADS-B INs traffic and weather. Theres no one-size-fits all answer. Theres also no question a bare-bones solution will meet the mandate. But if you already have a compatible box in your panel and use an EFB app on a tablet computer in the cockpit, linking it all together via Connected Panel or Garmins Connext as implemented with the Flightstream 210 is a next logical step. For a few more dollars, you can enhance your situational awareness, finesse some of the shortcomings existing navigators have, easily program and fly your avionics and have a panel backup at the same time.
Based on my limited experience with the equipment, the GDL/Flightstream/tablet combination is truly amazing. This upgrade, along with the equipment already in the plane, has dragged me into the 21st century.
Howard Drabek is an FAA-certificated commercial pilot with instrument and multi-engine ratings. He also holds advanced ground instructor, with instrument rating, and aircraft dispatcher certificates.