If there is one problem we all share it is trying to make our electronic devices, or the avionics in our airplanes, talk to other electronics equipment. Every electronics advancement inevitably leaves some earlier equipment behind because the new box can’t communicate with the old one.
Mixing new and old avionics is particularly difficult because FAA certification locks a technology in place. Change fundamental operation of a certified piece of avionics equipment and you almost certainly need to recertify the box, and that is a huge expense.
Aspen Avionics is a fairly new startup that entered the market with a compact flat glass primary flight display (PFD) aimed at the retrofit market. Because the Aspen Evolution PFD was initially created to be installed in airplanes with a panel full of existing avionics, the Aspen box had to get along with everybody else. If airplane owners had to change all of their avionics to be compatible with the new Aspen display, costs would go through the roof and Aspen would have a very small potential market.
The clever engineers at Aspen devised ways to accept inputs from almost any navigation equipment already installed in an airplane. And they created various outputs so that the Aspen PFD could work with other displays or autopilots. Aspen is the new guy, so it had to fit in to an existing world instead of demand everyone change to their standard.
The history of general aviation standards is that the market leader gets to call the shots. For example, panel-mounted radios are 6.25 inches wide, a dimension called the “Mark width.” Our avionics to this day are Mark width because in the 1960s Narco dominated. Narco radios were named Mark V, Mark 12, and so on. Narco made the radios 6.25 inches wide. Airplane manufacturers made the radio rack that width because Narco had most of the business.
So the Mark width became a standard.
By the mid-1970s King Radio overtook Narco as the market leader. King stayed with the Mark width for size, but created several unique communications formats for avionics boxes to talk to each other. These formats became a de facto standard for all of general aviation as any other company that wanted to fit into a typical airplane had to play nice with the King equipment that was already there.
Now Garmin is the market leader and has created its own in and out communications and operational formats. Garmin makes sure that all of its equipment works efficiently together, but the techniques it uses may not be optimum for other avionics makers.
It is totally understandable to me that the avionics market leader gets to call the tune and others must play along. And that’s what Aspen is doing. Aspen, through the versatility of its Evolution flat glass displays and its new Connected Panel equipment, is creating a common link that most any combination of equipment can use.
Aspen’s Connected Panel system is a very important bridge between the myriad of aviation apps most of us have on personal electronic devices and the certified avionics mounted in the airplane. The heart of the Connected Panel system is an electronics box mounted in the airplane that communicates through a wireless link to your Apple iPad, iPhone, and other iOS-driven devices.
The Connected Panel CG100 gateway box is a two-way link between your personal electronic device and the equipment mounted in the airplane. Connected Panel can, for example, wirelessly send a flight plan from you flight planning app directly into the GPS navigators.
Connected Panel also links to the Aspen flat glass displays.
What can Connected Panel do for you? Who knows? That’s the beauty of the system. Aspen has created a link that can allow various avionics equipment to communicate with iOS applications that haven’t been developed yet. Imaginations much more fertile than mine will certainly develop apps that perform tasks none of us have thought of yet.
So far Aspen has at least 19 partner companies working on how to optimize communications among avionics equipment and your iPad. The companies include biggies like Bendix/King, Avidyne, Jeppesen, ForeFlight, Fltplan.com, and some new companies you may have never heard of, like Parrot. Apps these and other companies develop are available on the normal app store.
I’m not saying Aspen can make every avionics box talk happily to its neighbor, but it has blazed a trail and so far a whole bunch of other companies are jumping on board.