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Technology in the Cockpit; The Future Is Now, and You’d Better Catch Up!

By James Williams
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

I started learning to fly only about eight years ago. At that time glass cockpits were something for those aluminum tube jockeys at the flight levels. The idea of a basic training aircraft with a Horizontal Situation Indicator (HSI) much less a Primary Flight Display (PFD) was laughable. The only Global Positioning Systems (GPS) around were small (relatively), VFR only, portable units with black and white or single color displays. Times were good and I learned how to navigate the hard way—some­thing that has come in handy on a few occasions. After I finished my Instrument rating I figured I needed to know how to use these new systems. I had used portable VFR GPS before, but my training center now had the holy grail of general aviation (GA) navigation, aircraft equipped with color moving map IFR certified GPS. They were Garmin GNS 430®. I quickly learned the basic functions of the Garmins and learned to love the system as a giant leap forward in navigation. I am still grateful that I learned to fly and navigate the traditional ways, though, because they have proved useful and taught me not to depend on a single source of navigation information.

The point of the preceding tangent was to illustrate just how rapid the rise of technology has been. I was probably one of the last pilots to be trained in an environment where GPS for instrument flight was still a relatively far off dream. Within a year or two of my start, IFR GPS was so prevalent that students would complain if they had to do a VFR cross country without GPS. I was happy to get a plane with two radios and distance measuring equipment (DME).

If you think this technology revolu­tion has happened overnight you’re at least partially right. To me it certainly seems like the advance has been more rapid than we could have possibly dreamed just 10 years ago. But with that advancement, comes a new challenge—keeping up. If you’re like me, you don’t get to fly as often as you’d like. Maybe you do fly a lot, but not in an airplane with any of these new technologies. So you’re sitting there scratching your head asking what any of this has to do with you. Well, it’s a brave new world, and we as aviators all have to live in it. Besides, many of these systems really do provide benefits over the older ones, if you just take a little bit of time to learn them.


Let’s take a brief look at three main areas of the technology revolution: navigation information, weather in the cockpit, and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B). You can look at these technologies as past, present, and future. While these titles may be a bit forced, they frame the point where we currently are in this revolution. Navigation information mainly in the form of GPS is the revolution that was. While not completely adopted, mainly because of cost of installing and maintaining current systems, most pilots have at least used an IFR certified GPS and would acknowledge it has become the dominant form of navigation for general aviation.

Weather in the cockpit is the revolution of the present. Right now there is technology available that will allow data link systems transmit real time or near real time weather information, even radar, onto the screens of GA aircraft. While these systems will probably not replace weather radar, they offer a near approximation at a vastly reduced cost.

ADS-B is the revolution to come. FAA Ad­ministrator Marion C. Blakey has called it the “FAA’s moonshot.” ADS-B is a new system to augment and in part replace traditional radar and improve air traffic control capacity and safety. By looking at all three areas we can see what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen.

The underlying advance that makes all of these things possible (or at least much more us­able) is the introduction of LCD cockpit displays. The most often over­looked advantage of LCD screens is that they are software driven. Software driven systems displays or instruments can be adjusted or upgraded without replacing the entire unit. In many cases just a quick software patch is all that is required. From a human factors perspective this is great. Traditional instruments are very limited in the ways they can present information to the pilot. Any change requires a hugely expensive replacement or at least extensive modification of the instrument. In the future, LCD displays could lead to completely customized displays for every pilot. Much the way many cars now have memory positions for the seats and controls, airplanes could automatically adjust the displays of systems and other information to what pilots select as their favorite. These settings could be stored on a memory stick or USB key and transferred to any like-equipped airplane. The settings could also be tailored to phase of flight as well and change automatically at preset points on a flight, always presenting the pilot with the most relevant information for a particular phase of flight without overloading him/her. These are some of the possibilities opened up by the new technology.

With these new systems come new challenges—a familiar aspect of this modern age. These systems are a massive advancement over their predecessors, but that said they can be very complicated. In general aviation we have a tendency to try to learn on the fly. With systems as complex as those now becoming prevalent in GA, this is no longer an acceptable practice. Ground training should be undertaken to gain a better understanding of how these systems work and how to get what you need out of them. We can no longer just figure it out as we go along.


Navigation Information has probably made the most complete inroads to our system. Today GPS is widely accepted as the preferred method of navigation for most pilots. It’s quick, it’s easy (relatively), and it’s widely available. We often forget that GPS is not approved as a primary method of navigation. So remember, you still need to have a primary means of navigation onboard and active. [See our article on Instrument Flight Rules requirements from the November/December 2006 issue for more information, which is available online at in the Nov/Dec, 2006 issue of the FAA Safety Briefing, Page 13.] Plus in different ways it lays the ground work for the other two portions of this revolution. Before  the introduction of GPS for civilian use in 1993 (Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) Chap.1-1-19) no major advances had been made in navigation methods since the introduction of Very High Frequency (VHF) Omni directional Ranges (VORs) and Instrument Landing Systems (ILSs) following World War II. While systems like Microwave Landing System (MLS) and Long Range Aids to Navigation (LORAN) had been developed, they never gained wide acceptance. In the case of MLS, this was a matter of cost and complexity. In the case of LORAN, it was a matter of coverage and usability. GPS is the one that made it. Its use is so widespread that not having it today is seen as a serious shortcoming by many pilots.

In fairness I must say there has been much discussion in recent months of what to do with LORAN and there are some good arguments for retaining it as a back up to the GPS system. Recently a request for comments was published in the Federal Register (Vol. 72, No. 4).

The Coast Guard is trying to determine whether to continue funding the system, scrap it, or improve it. As we look to the future we must ensure that we have redundancy built in the next system like we do in this system. Using only GPS would create a rather large single point of failure and this is the problem that is being worked on by those who design the modernization plans.

These technologies, especially ADS-B, play parts in the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NGATS) proposed by the FAA and the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO). The JPDO is a group made of different federal agencies and private companies that was tasked with developing the NGATS. The NGATS should provide some dramatic benefits to all users. “With pre­cise performance-based navigation and Internet-like access to critical information—including nearly real-time weather—pilots will make precision landings at airports that do not have control towers, or radar, or Instrument Landing Systems...,” said Nicholas A. Sabatini, Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety.


GPS works by calculating the aircraft’s position by measuring the time messages transmitted from a constellation of satellites take to reach the aircraft from a known position in space. With five satellites in view, GPS can resolve positions to within about three meters. Only three satellites are necessary, but the fourth allows for greater accuracy and the fifth is used to monitor signal quality and availability. The GPS constellation contains at least 24 satellites arranged in a manner that should allow six to be visible from anywhere in the world. All this electronic wizardry had a huge effect, especially for general aviation. Airlines already had expensive and complicated inertial navigation systems that allowed for similar navigation performance, but these systems are too costly for most general aviation customers. GPS changed the world of GA almost overnight. Suddenly you could go direct to anywhere. No more airways, VORs, and Non Directional Beacons (NDB)! Well, that never really happened, but within a few years of the first VFR GPS units hitting the market came panel mounted units that were approved for IFR navigation. Then came GPS approaches. These non-precision approaches offered access to airports that previously had none or increased access to airports that had traditional ground-based equipment. The original GPS approaches were no replacement for the ILS which was still required for use in the worst weather.

Significant progress toward ILS type approaches by GPS was made in 2003 when the Wide Area Augmenta­tion System (WAAS) came online. More broadly, WAAS is part of what the industry calls SBAS or Satellite Based Augmentation Systems. These systems use ground stations with known positions to correct inherent in­accuracy in the GPS process. These stations send a correction factor to a main station which gathers them from all the ground stations and sends them to satellites. These satellites then broadcast them back down to the aircraft allowing it to correct for the errors in the signal and navigate even more accurately. There are also systems that use the same concept with­out satellite distribution, instead relying on radio transmission. These systems are known as GBAS or Ground Based Augmentation Systems. Australia currently uses a GBAS for upgraded accuracy. With WAAS in place, vertical guidance was initially available down to 350 feet. After further development localizer quality lateral guidance and vertical guidance to 250 feet became available. The FAA expects to have vertical guidance down to 200 feet available sometime this year. Of course, all of this assumes your GPS receiver is WAAS capable and properly certified and installed. Air Services Australia is about to field Category I approach capability, which allows vertical guidance down to 200 feet, based on GPS information in the very near future. In any case, no rational pilot can deny that GPS dominates any discussion of airborne navigation.


Once GPS and electronic displays started to become a fixture in general aviation cockpits the door was opened to more advances. As the screens got bigger and cheaper you could do more with them. There was room for more than just the absolutely necessary information. The appear­ance of these displays lead to weather information in the cockpit. Ask any pilot what factors most worries him or she about flying and weather will be very high up the list—if not at the top. Weather can be a joy or a rude slap in the face. Most conscientious pilots dutifully call Flight Service before flights to check the weather or at least stop by the weather computer or TV at the FBO for a quick glance at the local radar. In most cases, before they enter the cockpit is the most informed about the current weather pilots will ever be. There are good resources out there for checking the weather in-flight like Flight Watch or Hazardous In-flight Weather Advisory Systems (HIWAS) reports and, of course, Flight Service Stations, but for as long as we’ve had radios they have been limited to describing conditions.

From personal experience even when you are really keen to learn about conditions, sometimes these aids aren’t all that helpful. HIWAS in particular can be difficult because it defines warning areas in terms of points from navaids. In many cases, when you’re traveling cross-country, they are navaids you’ve never heard of. So now you have to flip through your charts looking for a point 40 miles southwest of the Apple Bumpkin VOR and all you’re-thinking is where am I, and who names a VOR Apple Bumpkin? (Hint: I made this VOR up, at least I hope so.) So you’re left madly rifling through charts wondering if that magical VOR is on this chart or perhaps the next or perhaps it’s in Guam, you never can tell with these things. The point is that the limitations of voice communications make it difficult to rapidly determine what the situation is. There is an assumption of local knowledge which just isn’t always true. Technology to the rescue in the form of weather in the cockpit displayed in glorious color on moving maps. You can now rapidly ascertain the weather situation that surrounds you.

The satellite data link technology allows for many kinds of updated in­formation to be downloaded directly to your display during the flight. Products available include Routine Aviation Weather Reports (Metars), Terminal Area Forecasts (TAFs), Airmets, Sigmets, Pilot Reports (Pireps), Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs), NexRad Radar, and more. While data link can’t replace weather radar or the Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) on larger aircraft for those of us not regularly flying the flight levels, its close enough. The cost makes it affordable whereas dedicated weather radar would be a proposition that would not be feasible. Looking back at some of the trips I’ve made, I really wish I had this technology to help make decisions. Two of the major players in the weather in the cockpit market for GA are WSI Corporation and XM WX Satellite Weather. The features vary slightly, but both systems work through existing navigation systems or Electronic Flight Instrument Systems (EFIS) currently available.

Now for the bad news, these systems rely on data link and as such there are delays. NexRad provides up­dates every five minutes and most systems update every 10 minutes.

There are also reports of delays of around 15 minutes experienced by some pilots. During some periods of rapidly changing conditions, this can seem like an eternity. That is a limitation of the system that operators need to be aware of. But the point is that even at 15 minutes of delay, it’s still a lot better than nothing at all.


If satellite weather is now, then ADS-B is the future. ADS-B is the cor­nerstone of the NGATS and from comments by senior FAA officials will be required for full access to the modernized National Airspace System around 2020. In a very basic sketch ADS-B is a system that uses data link technology to transmit aircraft infor­mation like position, speed, direction, intentions, and more. It’s like a transponder with much greater capability. But unlike a transponder, it broadcasts without interrogation from ATC radar. ADS-B uses GPS with Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) to determine position. The system also allows every other properly equipped aircraft to see the other equipped aircraft. In the future the FAA is hoping to introduce self separation of aircraft, but in the meantime situational awareness should be markedly boosted.

Essentially ADS-B allows everyone to be working from the same sheet of paper. All pilots and controllers would have access to “radar” like information. This would be accomplished by Traffic Information System-Broadcast (TIS-B), which is a part of ADS-B that transmits and receives position infor­mation between aircraft. ADS-B also includes Flight Information Services (FIS), which will provide weather (both graphical and textual) and Special Use Airspace (SUA) information. Terrain Awareness is another key point for ADS-B, which uses a terrain database and GPS information to depict terrain relative to the aircraft’s position. So ADS-B offers GA many advantages. The advantage to the FAA is “radar” like coverage in areas where setting up radar is impractical or impossible. ADS-B is not really a single system, but rather an integration of many useful technologies into one system.

ADS-B is in use by the FAA’s Alaskan Region under a program called Capstone. The program has been very successful and had a posi­tive influence on the safety record in Alaska. According to a study done by the University of Alaska, Anchorage, in 2003 “from 2000 through the end of 2003 the rate of accidents for Capstone equipped aircraft was lower by 40%.” ADS-B is being tested at other locations around the country notably by Embry Riddle Aeronautical University with its training fleet. FAA is in the process of preparing to roll out ADS-B for larger areas of the country. As with any large scale change, it will take time to get the full advantage from the system, but I’m sure almost every pilot can see something in the ADS-B sys­tem that they would like to have today.

The one major challenge of ADS­B is that, to work as a means of separation, the system requires near 100% equipage of aircraft wishing to use the airspace. This means that operators would have to incur expense and air­craft downtime to get all the hardware and software needed installed. In the airline world, this means that reequipping would have to occur during heavy maintenance checks where crews would have access to the areas where wiring would need to be run and hardware installed. Since heavy maintenance checks are only performed about every seven years there isn’t much time before the airline would have to start adding the new hardware to avoid massive downtime and lost revenue. While the installation is usually easier and much simpler on smaller GA aircraft, there would still be a significant cost to consider.


These are exciting times. Never before has so much been changing so fast as right now. But these changes mean that we have to adapt to the new environment. We need to be­come familiar with these computerized systems beyond simply pressing “Direct To.” We need to focus more on avionics training. Conventional cockpits will never completely disappear, but more and more we will have to use these new systems. These systems offer great advantages, but you have to know how to use them, and there is far more depth to these systems than previous ones.

I see this revolution as being at a pivotal stage. Today we see much of what it will be, but are not yet forced to embrace it. Now is the time to acquaint ourselves with what we can, because there will come a time when the choice is no longer ours. The year 2020 seems like it’s a long way off, but it’s only 13 years away. Look at how much progress has been made in the last seven or so years and then double it. Common sense tells us that assuming the rate of progress will remain constant would be foolish. As with any breakthrough, progress and advancement will only accelerate perhaps even exponentially. So again, now is the time to become familiar with these systems while there’s plenty of time to practice and gain experience before you have to use them to get full use of the National Airspace System.

So what are we, the FAA, doing to prepare? The short answer is a lot. Much of the FAA’s capability and budget will be employed in the transition to this new system. One of the lessons learned from previous efforts has been to get the industry and stakeholders involved early. To that end the Flight Standards Service’s Flight Technology and Procedures Division (AFS-400) held its third annual New Technology Workshop this January. Representatives from the FAA, aircraft operators, aircraft manufacturers, avionics manufacturers, airspace service providers from other countries, and many more met to hear about the technologies that are on the horizon for aviation and discuss how we can get there. The workshop covered many different subjects including: ADS-B, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), NGATS, International harmo­nization of airspace systems, and much more. This is just one of the ways FAA is trying to involve users in the redesign of the National Airspace System to meet the projected tripling of air traffic by 2025.

So what are you supposed to do about it? Well, most of you probably already use a GPS. Is it IFR certified? If so, are you really using it to its full capacity? Why not schedule some time with a knowledgeable instructor? That way you can get more out of your GPS today and be more prepared for the future. With GA cockpits starting to more closely resemble those of the airlines, our old “figure it out as we go” methods no longer make sense. No one wants to be the dinosaur standing in Times Square when the ADS-B ball drops, so we’d better get started now. Every little bit we learn now will make the future that much easier.

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