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Thu, Jan 06, 2011

The Best Of Gadget Patrol 2010: Part 1

This Year's Aero-Gadget Crop Was Impressive -- Especially In Terms Of Enhancing Our Cockpits

Final Compilations by ANN Editor-In-Chief/Gadget Hound, Jim Campbell

When it comes to the people, planes and products of the aviation business, ANN firmly believes there is no such thing as an embarrassment of riches. 2010, as usual, saw a spate of new products, programs and 'gadgets' designed to separate a pilot from his flying dollar... fortunately, the vast majority of them are quite worthy of foregoing a few (or more) $500 hamburgers.

In fact, for 2010 (despite the worst damage that the economic malaise could do) we really had to struggle with the list in order to pare it down to a manageable assembly and if we hadn't, we'd have easily had to increase the size of our annual 'Best Of' list to several dozen, or so, to accommodate them all.

From established products that continue to impress, to new and exciting developments across the range of general aviation... here, to our eyes, are some of the most worthy 'gadgets', products and programs of 2010.

In Search Of The Perfect Cockpit

ANN has had an amazing year discovering and operating some amazing new technologies that raise the level of cockpit capability to levels heretofore unimaginable for the general aviation world. Five products, offered by four companies knocked our socks off in 2010 and therefore DESERVE and EARN their place as some of the TOP TEN Aero-Gadgets/Products of the Year.

Before we name the best of the best, let me offer one intriguing insight into each of these products and the companies behind them. These are not huge companies with big budgets and unlimited resources… and in nearly every case, they are competing with mammoth businesses with lots of bucks and incredible R&D budgets… which means that most of these products should never have seen the light of day… unless you look at the fact that innovation and quality are still enough, in this value-conscious market to allow David to keep Goliath at bay… and I find that both heartening and a positive sign for the future of GA.

Avidyne Entegra Release 9

We are blown away with the experience we have had behind the Avidyne Entegra Release 9 Glass Cockpit… our flying experience has seen increases in utility, safety, comprehension and enjoyment since our upgrade late in 2009… and the last several hundred hours in our SR22 have been some of the best of our career. ‘R9’ not only does a great job of making our bird a solid Single-Pilot IFR transportation system, it does so with an ease of use, as well as an inspired methodology, that makes this not only one of the most capable glass panels in the business, it does so with a greater degree of safety, awareness and simplicity than anything we’ve flown before.

Simply put, the Entegra Release 9 remains the Best Panel in GA.

Entegra Release 9 was a complete upgrade of the elder Entegra product line. In the case of our elder Entegra-equipped aircraft, the R9 upgrade got rid of our old PFD & MFD and GPS/NAV/COMs, while replacing them with two high-resolution IFD5000 displays, dual Air Data and Attitude Heading Reference Systems (ADAHRS), dual-redundant FMS900w systems with a QWERTY keypad, next-generation fully-digital 16-watt VHF NAV/COM radios, and dual WAAS/RNP-capable GPS receivers.

We’re looking forward to extending the promise of R9 with the long-awaited Synthetic Vision upgrade (late this year) and the highly anticipated DFC100 digital autopilot (any day now)… thus equipped, out little piston bird will have capabilities that competes with anything else I’ve ever flown… and we simply can’t wait.

Darn… this thing has been great to us so far but with SVS and the DFC100, we anticipate an even greater level of satisfaction… which is an amazing concept to us, as happy as we’ve been so far. We simply can’t wait…

FMI:  www.avidyne.com

 

Aspen Evolution PFD/MFD Displays

Aw, heck…. Having Aspen and Avidyne in the same industry is kinda like taking the taking the prettiest girl in school to the prom… until her cousin shows up and proves to be just as much of a knockout – and then she starts making eyes at you… I mean, what’s a guy to do?

Then, against, it’s nice to have options… grin.

Aspen Avionics is all about options. Aspen may be one of the most laudable and positive success stories in all of GA… at least for the last decade… Coming out of nowhere and going up against mighty Garmin and other heavyweights, Aspen Avionics has innovated its way into thousands of cockpits around the world… and they did it with the three most important qualities GA needs – Innovation, Quality and Value.

While primarily designed as a retrofit system, the Aspen PFD/MFD system, especially in their incredibly cost-effective Three-Screen configuration, is getting to the point where it has nothing to make excuses over… especially with Synthetic Vision coming later this year. This company has innovated aggressively and evolved continuously… no matter what, the Aspen program has proven to be one of the most adaptable and capable additions available to any GA cockpit… and we have strong reason to believe that basic GA won’t be the only aspect of aviation benefitting from this system fop long, as we know that a number of turbine operators are lusting over the possible upgrade to the Evolution as soon as circumstances permit -- now that the system offers Part 23 Class II options.

The most powerful aspect of the Evolution design is the fact that you can pretty much install it just about everywhere… a massive STC program has allowed for installation in hundreds of popular GA fixed wings and helos, while the future should allow more types to take on the Aspen Evolution’s revolutionary features. The form factor allows for installations that require a minimal amount of panel disruption and the growing roster of features (weather, traffic, synthetic vision, engine data, you name it) make the Evolution a compelling value for nearly any airframe… and a very cost-effective one, to boot. Best of all, we hear GREAT reports on customer service and support – which makes Aspen a very uncommon start-up (it being less than a decade old)… a company that’s gotten it right… right from the start.

As a result, ANN finds the Aspen Evolution glass panel program to be one we can recommend without reservation… and possibly one of the best bargains we’ve seen in GA avionics… period.

FMI:  www.aspenavionics.com

 

Avidyne DFC90/DFC100

Once Garmin brought forth their GFC700 program, a number of pundits thought that they’d sew up that aspect of the cockpit electronics biz, as well. But… Avidyne had other plans… big plans. While the GFC700 program was an excellent addition to the tremendous functionality brought forth by the G1000 glass panel system, Avidyne was prepared to take them on and try to blow them out of the water… and it sure appears that they have done just that.

Avidyne DFC90

The DFC90 (for the many thousands of elder Entegra-equipped aircraft that are flying today) is the game-changer of game-changers when it comes to flight guidance systems. The DFC100 (for the more capable Release 9 system) takes it a few notches farther – to a point where one has to wonder how (or who) likely it is that some entity may try and top what these products offer.

Avidyne’s DFC90 Attitude-Based Digital Autopilot offers ‘the precision of an attitude-based flight control system’ and adds Avidyne’s truly innovative Envelope Protection capability.

The DFC90 has ‘all the standard vertical and lateral modes of operation of a turbine-class’ autopilot system, including Flight Director (FD), Altitude Hold (ALT), Airspeed Hold (IAS), Vertical Speed Hold (VS), Heading (HDG), and Navigation (NAV, APPR, LOC/GS, GPSS). More important, it does all this with a greater degree of accuracy than anything we’ve seen in the piston realm… period.

The Flight Envelope Protection feature set is designed to prevent autopilot-induced overspeeds (which Avidyne notes as having been a major contributing factor in many GA accidents). This includes having the autopilot avoid exceeding the flight envelope while providing visual and aural warnings to the pilot. This is a really smart feature, folks… available lift and speed margin are ‘calculated constantly in the background whenever any mode, including Flight Director modes, are in operation.’ And while operating in Flight Director modes, all these actions appear as guidance cues with corrections integrated visually into the "V-bar" commands. A simple ‘Straight & Level’ Button does just that… returns the aircraft to a straight level configuration… even when you’ve assumed (willfully or not) an unusual attitude. This feature overrides all autopilot modes and levels the aircraft in both pitch and roll from a ‘wide range of capture attitudes.’ The capability allows for tremendous convenience (hit it and deal with something else requiring your attention) as well as a particularly great ally when things start to get flaky (and is the perfect thing to teach a nervous passenger to use in the event you become incapacitated or otherwise unable to take care of business.

The DFC100 takes all this electronic wizardry up a few notches with even more in its bag of tricks… and we’re really excited about that… as we expect to be one of the first installs when the device earns certification (any day now). Among other things, the DFC100 supports Avidyne Release 9’s FMS Vectors mode, which allows the pilot to remain coupled during air traffic control (ATC) vectors operations without having to manually change autopilot modes. The DFC100 also supports VNAV, Altitude Defaults to Armed, Roll Servo support, Full time Envelope Alerting, Enhanced aural voice alerts, Flap input, Dual AHRS support, Servo Limit, Bank Limit, and Coupled Missed Approaches in VNAV.

Avidyne DFC100

It has a comprehensive suite of features and owners of the several hundred DFC90s already installed are reporting that the autopilot is definitely an upgrade that has exceeded their expectations. We expect the DFC100 will do all that… and more. As far as autopilots go in GA, the DFC90 and DFC100 will be setting the standard for quite some time and definitely qualify as one of the ten best ‘Aero-Gadgets’ of 2010.

FMI: www.aspenavionics.com

PS Engineering PMA8000BT

It’s a brilliantly simple feature… and it offers so much utility that one has to wonder why it took so long to show up… or why a small but highly capable little specialty avionics manufacturer beat everyone to the punch. Bluetooth… for audio panels… for airplanes. Who’da thunk it?

PS-Engineering’s latest audio panel, the new PMA8000BT, features Bluetooth capability, and was unveiled at the 53rd AEA convention in Orlando last Spring. The Bluetooth functionality of the PMA8000BT allows flyers with smart phones, (iPhone, BlackBerry, Palm Pilot, etc…), to connect wirelessly with the audio panel. This capability allows (among other things) the music in your PDA/Smartphone to stream into the audio panel for distribution to the aircraft occupants. Better yet; it allows the pilot, and anybody on the intercom, to connect to a cellular telephone from the audio panel without the entanglement of external wiring.

Operation of the Bluetooth link is quite simple (and indeed, ANN’s Jim Campbell succeeded in using it… on his first try) and only requires using the Smartphone to discover the PMA8000BT and establish a link. From there, one can either place a call and press the TEL button, or begin streaming music from their iPod or other device. Four muting modes and music distribution capability allow the pilot and passengers to decide how the music is treated.

In addition to the new Bluetooth abilities, thePMA8000continues to offer all the features of the PMA8000B (which we have and LOVE in our SR22), including six-place intercom with IntelliVox, dual-channel entertainment inputs through hardwire connections, fully featured audio panel functions with the new Monitor Mode, digital aircraft recorder and pilot selectable audio panel configurations.

PMA8000BT

We’re tremendously enthused with the box’s abilities and the ingenuity that brought it to market. We’re even more pleased to see that ‘one of us little guys’ brought this to the game long before any of the big companies did. It just goes to show that honest innovation and hard work still matter in GA and PS-Engineering continues to prove that on a daily basis. An outstanding idea…and product. Congrats to PS-Engineering On making this year's list of the best of Gadget Patrol -- 2010.

FMI: www.ps-engineering.com
 
NFlightCam

While most of the emphasis in this segment of Gadget Patrol has been on mighty feats of avionics daring, an ingenious new product offers much to the cockpit environment… especially in terms of training or just plain enjoyment of the flight experience.

The NFlightCam is a compact, all-in-one video system is so easy to use that it can literally become standard gear in your airplane (and should be, in our opinion, for EVERY instruction flight). It’s an in-cockpit video system that records HD video and audio – and can be used to relive interesting flights, offer phenomenal benefits in post-flight instruction briefings and critiques, and even show that A&P of yours that annoying little problem that never happens when he’s watching.

The NFlightCam Onboard N377SR

Adapted from ContourHD video camera technology, NFlightCam has done an impressive job of modifying these cameras for aviation usage. It’s incredibly easy to use -- just slide the single button forward to start recording in full HD video (1080p at 30 fps or 720p at 60 fps), while a custom headset interface allows you to record all of your communications, including intercom and radio. Better yet, the new GPS-enabled camera system (cams are available with or without GPS) uses a built-in GPS receiver to log your exact location as it records video. Free software allows you to play back your video while speed, altitude and position data are overlaid on a Google Earth rendering. It looks really cool.

Both versions of the cameras have a rotating lens and laser alignment system so you can mount the camera at any angle, see (for sure) where you’re pointing the works and in what orientation. A semi-wide angle (135 degree) lens capture pretty much the entire cockpit (depending on where you mount it). The NFlightCam package (available through Sportys) features Easy Edit software to create, edit and share your videos, while each system includes an adhesive mount, 3 hour battery, microphone jack, 2GB micro SD card and USB cable. Oh yeah, the whole kit and caboodle weighs only 4.3 oz.

NO instruction flight from here on out should ever leave the ground without something like this recording every second for maximum learning retention and critique, while the ability to share your journeys and adventures with friends and family might be JUST the way to let them all know that you haven’t lost your mind by learning to fly… and might convince more than one or two of them to join you – as a matter of fact, there is a redhead I’m dying to try this theory on (grin).

Various versions are available for well under $500 (some under $400) and we are simply stunned by how quickly we’ve come to adopt the use of these cams… the video quality is surprisingly good, they’re light and easy to mount and we’re simply having a ball with them. The NFlightCam has our highest recommendation.

FMI: http://nflightcam.com

NEXT: We will be unveiling and reviewing five more superb examples of Aero-Gadgetry over the next few days… and we’ll also name our 2010 Aero-Gadget of the Year!

FMI: The Best of Gadget Patrol 2010, Part 1 Comments and/or Criticism?

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