ADS-B Users Gather Round, As The Means They Are a-Changing

Weather + Position + Attitude… Keeping it all in check with ADS-B.

SkyVision Xtreme Portable, in its Xth and final iteration, was a convenient, hard-shell black briefcase of spy grade avionics that could receive and display aviation traffic and weather. More than that, SkyVision Xtreme Portable was the first demonstrable product in a complicated scheme to force general aviation’s adoption of ADS-B. Released in 2013, though conceived in 2010, the portable device offered ADS-B In & Out with little or no burden of installation.

SkyVision Xtreme Portable
SkyVision Xtreme Portable ADS-B In & Out System.

By FAA mandate, aircraft operators are now (by January 1, 2020) obligated to equip with ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast). Essentially, ADS-B is an upgrade to the commonplace transponder, or “squawk” box, that it now circumvents. SkyVision’s portable gave sleuthy first adopters a means to participate in the scheme.

The SkyVision Xtreme Portable concept was simple: Allow pilots to bring their weather and traffic system to the airplane with them; and it worked. Others quickly followed with compact portable devices offering a subset of capabilities. NavWorx offered WxBox, a hot selling weather-only unit, and PADS-B, an “In & Out” device that included traffic and position reporting. Appareo released its Stratus line, while Garmin introduced its GDL receivers. Everyone suddenly wanted “In.”

NavWorx WxBox
WxBox ADS-B weather receiver from NavWorx.
NavWorx PADS-B
PADS-B from NavWorx, full ADS-B In & Out with a portable device.

A common refrain among pilots fortunate enough to fly with traffic warning systems is that they suddenly feel vulnerable in aircraft without them.

Dave Hirschman, AOPA Pilot, April 2013

SkyVision Xtreme Portable was revolutionary, taking full advantage of what ADS-B had to offer. First, it was a step up from old-school radar traffic devices. Satellite-derived ADS-B sees traffic all the way to the ground when radar cannot. The Xtreme system also included graphical weather display, GPS derived position information, and an attitude heading reference system. Most importantly, the Xtreme Portable provided full ADS-B In & Out capability, the latter a requirement of the FAA mandate. SkyVision Xtreme arrived well in advance of the pending FAA 2020 deadline, appealing to early adopters and stoking developers.

Inside the SkyVision Xtreme Portable was an ADS-B universal access transceiver (UAT) from NavWorx. The briefcase was a self-contained, complete system and its only physical connection was a 12/24-Volt power plug. An internal battery supplied backup power. A pair of antennas tethered to the unit. On an iPad, or other tablet device, the data was displayed, transmitted via Wi-Fi. As aircraft came into view—before they could be seen through the windscreen—each was shown with distance, relative height, heading, speed, climb/descent trend, aircraft type, and call sign (if available). The device was smart and advanced. It set a standard others would follow.

SkyVision Xtreme on iPad
SkyVision Xtreme traffic and weather displayed on an iPad.

How rapidly development occurs. Nearly every existing avionics manufacturer, and a surge of newcomers, produced, bought or sought compatible products with the new ADS-B standard. The rush was on. With both open source content and competitive mettle at work, ADS-B adoption was indeed a contest. Big investment, from heavyweights like Garmin, aimed to head the standard. An indulgent FAA selectively conspired. Programmers and electronics entrepreneurs concocted ideas and seized opportunities. The community of aviators welcomed a supply of creative new products.

Nearing the end of 2019, the innovation continues. There’s Stratus 3, the nexus of the SkyVision concept, several years into its product life cycle. It comes from marketeers of aircraft transponders, electronic flight bags, and an array of other technology innovations. Simple to use, portable, free benefits (such as weather, traffic, GPS navigation), works on almost any device, and compatible with all the top apps, Stratus is now a commodity for ADS-B In, priced at around $700.

There’s also FlightBox, a palm-sized cuboid sprouting two antennas with, “All the features of the Stratus 2S at one-fourth the price,” according to the company. It’s an open source artifact of ADS-B development. With electronics available off-the-shelf, its users are emphatically embracing it. In the spirit of SkyVision and NavWorx affordability, FlightBox represents a culmination of ADS-B In development, setting one back a mere $239.

There’s even a DIY option with Stratux, an open source software adaptation of ADS-B development that can be used with widely available component parts. For example, one can get a 3D printed enclosure, add the electronics, and drive it with Stratux. The software is free, and public forums actively support it. Stratux is a bridge from the world of experimental aircraft to commercial ADS-B development.

A commodity in situ, culmination at play, and more bridges still ahead, ADS-B technology will continue to advance. We are seeing a glimpse of this at uAvionix, a company that integrates ADS-B into wingtip nav lights/strobes and tail beacons. These ultracompact and simple to install turnkey solutions are just the beginning.

uAvionix offers another pair of affordable and compact ADS-B solutions, one for the US—echoUAT—and one for the UK—SkyEcho. The echoUAT is a dual-link 1090 MHz / UAT device. An integrated Wi-Fi system talks to portable displays. A old-fashioned wire links it to common EFIS systems. A stealthy transcoder picks up Mode C signals. SkyEcho, by comparison, does all of the above framed in plastic roughly the size of a Tic Tac box. Both give the user everything presently available with ADS-B, not the least of which are compliance with national regulations and universal connectivity to popular avionics devices.

echoUAT and SkyEcho with display
echoUAT and SkyEcho with display.

SkyBeacon and tailBeacon, the aforementioned wing and tail light solutions from uAvionix, have a street price of around $1,800. They are “Out” only, hence there’s no need for a display, and require a conventional transponder. A typical ADS-B capable transponder runs $3,000 (there’s a net assumption that your current transponder is worth $1,200). By contrast, the latest touchscreen navigator from Garmin costs five G and comes with lots of extras; to add ADS-B is an additional $2,700. In this analogy, it makes good economic sense to ADS-B equip with uAvionix. But, the means they are a-changing.

Today, uAvionix is on the innovative edge of the general aviation industry, and it’s about time someone stepped up. There are few who challenge convention and succeed. Boxed avionics which occupy every bit of instrument panel real estate are not the future. Integration and applications will transform avionics, much like they did with the telephone. In its latest move, uAvionix purchased AeroVonics, makers of the smartly simple AV-20S Multi-Function Display (MFD) and AV-30 Primary Flight Display (PFD) products. Both bring low cost and ease of installation to GA. For now they are stand-alone products, but they will shape the future for electronics, data and display integration including ADS-B and future situational awareness technologies.

So what’s next? Single ADS-B microchips will integrate all now standard functions. These chips will be embedded in the aircraft; one might say implanted under its skin. GPS, ADS-B and all its forms will get “smart,” interrogating and resolving issues, often before pilots are even aware of the anomaly. Aircraft surveillance, under ADS-B or its global equivalent, will persist for the sake of safety. The advantages of free weather and traffic will be suppositional while the voyager-pilot beleaguers other tasks. Though for now, we can just fly a bit more secure in knowing that we are less distant from disaster in the event of nearby peril.

Note: The legacy SkyVision Xtreme is still available today with Skyvision Xtreme Moving Map Software employing the Stratux receiver and an 8-inch tablet display.

This article was published in InFlightUSA magazine, November 2019.

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