In aviation small companies can get things done that big ones sometimes can’t.
In all of my years in aviation I can’t remember a partnership between two established companies to jointly develop, certify, produce, and support a single product. But that’s what happened at Sun ’n Fun when Aspen and Honeywell announced that they had joined forces to complete development and certification of the long delayed KSN 770 combined GPS navigation, comm., and multi-function display (MFD) system. I think this is a marriage that can work.
Honeywell and its Bendix/King division announced the KSN 770 almost four years ago and the box was obviously aimed at Garmin’s wildly successful GNS 530. The KSN 770 is similar in size to the GNS 530, can perform the same functions, and, Honeywell hoped, would be easier to use because of a more intuitive arrangement of buttons and knobs. The KSN 770 would be completed, certified, and available for installation in GA airplanes in less than two years.
But the KSN 770 just didn’t make it to certification and production. The delays were so great, in fact, that Garmin has already announced its follow-on system to the GNS 530 – the GTN 750, with touch-screen controls a many other new features. I thought the Honeywell KSN 770 was dead in the water.
Honeywell produces the avionics for the large-cabin Gulfstream and Falcon business jets, plus several others. It also does a tremendous amount of business with Boeing and Airbus. Its expertise is in the transport category world of avionics and that is a very different world, indeed.
Certification theory changes between the small airplane category of FAR Part 23 rules and the transport category of FAR Part 25. In small GA airplanes – those weighing less than 12,500 pounds maximum for takeoff – the certification theory is that pilots and passengers are using the airplane for personal and business transportation so they understand the risks and accept a less stringent set of rules. In the transport category it is assumed that those airplanes are used to carry the public, which has no knowledge or interest in certification standards, so the rules must be set at the highest level possible.
The different certification standards of Part 23 and Part 25 take on many forms in all parts of the airplane. For example, the Part 25 airplane must have multiple redundant systems so that no combination of failures can lead to an off-airport landing, but Part 23 airplanes can be certified with only single systems. That’s why you can’t certify a single-engine transport airplane, because the transport airplane must be able to continue safely to an airport after the failure of the most critical engine at any time during the flight, including on takeoff roll.
In avionics design and certification the most crucial difference between transport and Part 23 airplanes is software design. In all modern avionics it is computer software that allows the electronic gyros to show the pilot his true attitude on the flat-screen primary flight display (PFD). Only software links the digital air data computer to the PFD, the autopilot, and the flight management system. Software is more crucial than even individual sensors such as GPS receivers, air data computers, gyros, and ILS receivers because it is the software that controls each of those functions.
Because software is so essential to integrated avionics performance the FAA has created levels of criticality that each software function must meet. In transport airplanes the truly essential functions such as attitude, airspeed, approach guidance, and so on are certified to Level A. That doesn’t mean the software necessarily has to perform better, or even be more precise, but that the design of the software makes it extremely difficult for it to be corrupted and show false information. Level A software requires almost total isolation from other less essential functions and that adds complexity and cost. And controls over that software must be extremely stringent so that no changes can creep in either during manufacturing, installation, or maintenance of the avionics.
Certification requirement for avionics software for GA airplane is less stringent with most functions meeting only Level C or D standards. That doesn’t mean the avionics lack precision or performance, but that the software can be more integrated and thus less costly and complex to produce and certify. That is one of several reasons why the same function – GPS navigation, for example – costs so much more in a transport airplane than in a GA airplane.
What is very difficult for a company to do is work in both the transport and GA world. Brilliant software engineers who can get equipment through the Level A transport certification process just throw up their hands when you say you don’t need to do all of that for a system certified in GA. Honeywell has lot of software engineers working at the highest level, but not at the GA level.
And that’s what Aspen brings to the marriage to deliver the KSN 770. Aspen is a startup company, only a few years old, that has figured out how to build and certify PFDs – including the electronic gyros and digital air data computers – at a size and price that is very attractive to GA owners. The Aspen displays fit in any GA panel, and the company has received certification for almost the entire fleet. Recently it has gained approval for its electronic gyros to replace the spinning metal gyros to guide most popular autopilots, and that is a major leap forward.
Aspen’s software guys understand the FAA requirements for GA airplanes and can help guide the KSN 770 through that process. They also know how to work with the FAA to get the STCs necessary to install the equipment in existing airplanes with the least amount of complexity. Honeywell certainly knows how to produce good hardware so the combination of experience and expertise between the two companies appears to be ideal.
The Aspen-Honeywell team is upgrading the KSN 770 to a touch screen, which was not part of the original design, so the box can compete more directly with Garmin’s GTN 650/750. And the KSN 770 is priced at $12,995, giving it a price advantage necessary to compete with the established Garmin equipment.
The Honeywell and Bendix/King brands have tremendous equity in all of aviation, but I think it is the experience Aspen has gained in designing and, more importantly, certifying advanced avionics for GA that can make the KSN 770 a reality. When Aspen appeared on the scene with its very compact PFD systems I had my doubts that it could succeed with either the FAA or GA pilots. But Aspen surprised me, and continues to impress me by delivering ever more capability at attractive prices. I think this is a marriage that can work.