Aspen Avionics Innovates Again

The avionics manufacturer has found intriguing ways to tempt customers into putting Aspen in their panels.

Aspen Avionics

Aspen Avionics

** Aspen Avionics is adding value and versatility
with its Connected Panel and autopilot interface.**
Flying

Aspen Avionics has recently come out with some new products and product features that continue to add to the allure of its ingenious Evolution Flight Display (EFD), a compact, easy-to-install retrofit (mostly) PFD that the company launched several years ago. The product has proved popular with owners of all kinds of aircraft, from light singles through larger twins, in part because it offers a lot of capability for less. Aspen has delivered nearly 5,000 displays around the world.

Over the past couple of years, however, the big question for Aspen has been how to grow the business. Those who know the company's history won't be surprised to learn that it has come up with some unconventional and intriguing ideas on the subject, including a way to link your iPad or tablet computer to your panel-mount system and an autopilot interface that allows owners to upgrade their autopilot and have it play nicely with the Aspen PFD. Aspen announced both initiatives at AirVenture Oshkosh last year. We had a chance to check out the products installed and flying at Sun 'n Fun.

As has been the case with all of Aspen’s products to date, Connected Panel and the autopilot interface are both ways to create value for existing or would-be Aspen customers while making the company’s core offering, the Evolution Flight Display, a more versatile and therefore more enticing product.

When Aspen Avionics introduced its Evolution Flight Display, a primary flight display (PFD) that was designed from the start to be an easy add-on for thousands of existing airplanes, the company was staking its claim to an important part of the panel. The EFD, which is inexpensive and has an integrated ADAHRS and air data computer, along with GPS/WAAS and more, was designed to also work with the components customers already had in their panels, including the Garmin GNS 430 and GNS 530 navigators, which are installed in the panels of around 100,000 airplanes worldwide.

The Aspen Approach
The magic behind the Aspen PFD is that it doesn't require any surgery to the existing panel in order to install the display. The guts and brains of it reside in the space behind the round hole vacated by the former electromechanical instruments. The former round gauges are redistributed to serve as standby instruments, so no additional expense is needed there either. The biggest expense typically is installing the proprietary antenna for the system. Still, the costs associated with getting a PFD in the panel of a former steam gauge airplane are lower than ever.

The downside to the Aspen display is its smaller size, though this is a bit of a subjective call. For some pilots, me included, the EFD does everything they’d want it to do, and because Aspen does such a good job with the human factors, the size of the display just works. You get a lot of information, but it’s organized very clearly. The symbols and text are a large size but uncrowded, and the colors help set the various functions apart from each other so effectively that the display almost seems to speak to you. It’s one of those products with execution that looks so effortless it appears to have happened without any human intervention at all.

The engineers at Aspen could tell that nothing could be further from the truth.

When paired with one of the larger Garmin navigators, such as the GNS 530 or GTN 750, the effect is very similar to the PFD/MFD arrangement you get with a conventional factory-installed glass panel. Because the overall cost of the Aspen package (including installation) is lower than that of the larger and more integrated Garmin G600/G500, a lot of airplane owners are willing to go with the smaller display.

When paired with a good multi-function navigator, like one of the Garmin boxes, you have a winning combination of capabilities, along with greatly enhanced reliability — the addition of solid-state attitude is for many Aspen customers the biggest safety edge — added redundancy and greatly enhanced situational awareness.

Moreover, you can put one or two additional Aspen multifunction displays next to the PFD to bring additional real estate to the Aspen package. And Aspen’s nicely implemented synthetic vision on the PFD adds to the value too.

The iPad Connection
Aspen Avionics is closing in on certification for its Connected Panel, an iPad gateway product the company announced at last year's Oshkosh show. The technology is one of the most intriguing introductions in avionics in a long time, because it forces us to rethink what avionics are and how our portable and handheld devices are integrated with the avionics system. Before Connected Panel, portable devices weren't integrated at all.

Connected Panel brings portable and panel-mount products together by allowing a pilot to use an iPad (other devices are on the way) to do any number of aviation chores and move data back and forth between the iPad and the panel-mount avionics. In the process, Connected Panel keeps things on the up and up, serving as buffer, backup and traffic cop for the data that comes through it, keeping the system safe and providing potentially robust recovery capabilities in case of bad data or an interrupted transfer, for example.

Connected Panel (which is expected to sell for less than $2,500) is slated for certification soon. The device, the CG100, is a small blind-mounted box that connects using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or USB, and also features flash memory storage (for data logging applications and more). Aspen’s displays are optimized for Connected Panel, but apps can interface with any panel-mount hardware they can hook up with.

The apps are the secret to Connected Panel, and Aspen gives full credit to its partners, which range from Sporty's and ForeFlight for flight data and data logging to JP Instruments for engine instrumentation. Aspen shares its app and hardware source data with app developers, who are free to write apps that will play with Aspen or other devices. Some apps might be either free of charge or an included feature, as with ForeFlight; you get the Connected Panel interface for the price of the ForeFlight app. Other apps could cost anywhere from a few bucks to hundreds of dollars.

To try out Connected Panel, we used ForeFlight Mobile Pro, a leading aviation charting, mapping and data app that has been optimized for Connected Panel. ForeFlight allowed us to see Connected Panel's capabilities and potential. In case you haven't tried it, ForeFlight Mobile Pro provides a tremendously more satisfying user experience than the Garmin GNS 430W does. On the other hand, the Garmin 430W is an FAA TSO'd IFR navigator, something an iPad will never be. ForeFlight is a graphically rich and feature-packed aviation app, something a 430W will never be. Connected Panel gives users the best of both products.

I tried out Connected Panel in Aspen's SR22 at Plant City, Florida, recently, and I was impressed. I'd been a skeptic too. The idea of using an iPad connected to the panel for serious aviation tasks seemed a bit of a stretch, but I was wrong. The interaction with ForeFlight was seamless. I was able to load flight plans from ForeFlight and import them into the SR22's Garmin GNS 430 navigators, and vice versa. The biggest surprise was how readily I adjusted to the idea of using an iPad as what amounts to a touch-screen programmer for the FMS and MFD. It couldn't have been easier or more intuitive. Not to mention useful. And when all was said and done I had a brilliant display — my iPad — to show off the strengths of the 430W.

There are sure to be skeptics who question the wisdom of melding the portable and panel-mount worlds. I know. I was one of those skeptics. Aspen’s claim, and it’s a convincing one, is that there’s little to no risk of doing something silly by accident on the iPad and having that screw up your flight plan, fuel planning, databases or what have you. That’s because nothing happens in the panel without having to first command it and second confirm it. And because Connected Panel apps are written to interface through the gateway in a prescribed fashion, there can be no surprises. The risk, it turns out, seems to be the same as simply entering incorrect information into a flight plan or other panel-mount system. Could it happen? Sure. Is it likely? Not really.

If the risks are small, the potential rewards are great. For pennies on the dollar you get a greatly enhanced user interface for your panel — via the app — and an additional touch-screen controller/display (your iPad) as part of the deal.

Aspen expects that it will be much more than an iPad link. A potential application that shows great promise, to name just one of hundreds of possibilities, is a data loader for your MFDs or FMSs. Load your data onto your iPad (if it's supported) and then just load your data onto your devices through Connected Panel instead of swapping cards and lugging laptops around. Jeppesen, for one, is already working with Aspen on just such an app, which is as yet unnamed.

It all sounds cool, but it’s important to remember that this is just one of hundreds of possible apps. I can think of a few that I’d like to see, and if that’s the case you can rest assured that there are scores of clever developers out there working on things we haven’t yet dreamed of.

Autopilot Connection
Another way that Aspen found to make its compact PFD even more valuable was by making it compatible with more autopilots and by enhancing the integration of those autopilots.

The most noteworthy of these is the Avidyne DFC90, an attitude-based high-performance digital autopilot with built-in envelope protection and straight-and-level recovery mode. The autopilot is available on the Cirrus SR22 and SR20 and the Piper PA46. Avidyne is closing in on certification on a number of Cessna 182 models, and it plans to get approvals in a number of Beechcraft Bonanza models, as well as numerous others yet to be announced, down the line.

With its latest update the Aspen PFD, specifically the EFD 1000 Pro, has been updated to interface with the Avidyne autopilot in the same way as Avidyne’s R9 PFD does. The Aspen display, as you can see in the accompanying photographs, displays the autopilot state, allows for altitude preselect and displays rate of climb selected or indicated airspeed. It also displays messages from the DFC90’s envelope protection features, including annunciating when the straight-and-level emergency recovery button has been pushed.

When combined with the DFC90, the EFD 1000 Pro becomes the nerve center for aircraft control, giving control and display to the impressive capabilities of what is one of the best autopilots available in the GA market and arguably the best available on the aftermarket for light airplanes. I’ve flown the DFC90 on a couple of different Cirrus SR22s, and I’m impressed with everything about the autopilot, from its positive and smooth flight control to the turbine-level features, including indicated airspeed hold, to the remarkably advanced envelope protection features. The marriage of Aspen’s fine PFD to the DFC90 is a great match.

The pair of components goes for an attractive price too: The DFC90 starts at right around $9,995, the Evolution Pro PFD starts at $10,180, and the autopilot software activation goes for just under $2,000. So for around $22,000 (plus substantial installation costs, of course), the owner of a suitable candidate airplane gets a remarkably capable system with primary flight display and a top-notch digital autopilot. No other system with similar components and features comes close.

The safety benefits are great. The system affords a lot of redundancy (especially if an Aspen MFD is added to the mix), the reliability of solid-state attitude — the AHRS in the autopilot drives the autopilot — and the in-your-face clarity of PFD annunciation for your autopilot modes.

They’re great features to add to an existing airplane. Throw in the Connected Panel, and you might be adding new features, in the form of Connected Panel apps, for a long time to come.