July 28, 2013 - At least among pilots who remember personal aviation before GPS and microprocessors became common in the cockpit, there's little argument: Today's technology has revolutionized the ways in which most of us fly.
Whether coaxing a vintage flivver lacking electrics to join the arrival procession at Ripon, piloting a Skyhawk in search of a $100 hamburger, or threading a Cirrus through a line of storms, today's cockpits have more and better information than ever before. There's never been a reason to fly into a storm, but pilots today have to try really hard to be surprised by bad weather.
In many ways, the small aircraft cockpit automation revolution started with products like King's KNS-80 and -81 VOR/DME-based RNAV computers, and Northstar's M-1 Loran navigator. Soon, Garmin's GNS 430/530 and Bendix/King's KLN 89, 90, and 94 proved wildly popular for panel upgrades. Today, tightly integrated glass panels, which eliminate steam gauges and sharply improve reliability, are the rule.
But what's the next big thing?
Chances are the answer is available somewhere on the AirVenture grounds this week. A quick glance at what's popular aboard today's cabin-class business aircraft may provide some clues.
Ask a high-end avionics installer what he or she spends the most time working on these days and the answer likely will be something involving networking. The modern cabin-class aircraft uses either a wired or wireless network to connect a wide variety of devices, providing in-flight entertainment, business-application support, and voice/data communication with the ground via satellite or terrestrial datalinks. The same network is linked to the cockpit, providing passengers moving map and basic air-data information.
Personal aircraft increasingly are seeing similar equipment installed, but without the wiring: Either Bluetooth or WiFi technology links portable devices to installed entertainment systems or equipment providing traffic and weather via ADS-B. Check product offerings from companies like Garmin, FreeFlight Systems, and Aspen Avionics.
Each of them, and others, are building in a wireless networking capability to their products, designed to automatically link aircraft data to a ground-based computer, deliver ADS-B data to your iPad, or program the avionics in your panel with a flight plan.
In fact, ADS-B already offers much of that capability. Presently, of course, relatively few general aviation aircraft are equipped to accommodate ADS-B In datalinks, but that number is growing. The technology, of course, already uses ground stations to transmit weather and traffic information to cockpits today, with text-based data like ATC clearances in the offing.
The only thing missing is a relatively inexpensive and reliable way to link that personal airplane to the Internet. Today's high-end business aircraft often sport some way to access the Internet, even if the bandwidth is relatively narrow and the access is expensive.
That capability hasn't trickled down to personal aircraft yet.
Some technical hurdles are in the way, but someone soon will figure out that problem. Once they do, the sky will again be the limit.