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Tue, Nov 22, 2005

Avidyne's Dan Schwinn: 'The Most Rapid Change of Light GA Instrumentation'

Interview With Dan Schwinn Of Avidyne, Part VI of VI

In the conclusion to our long-running interview with Dan Schwinn of Avidyne, we primarily talk about generalities -- although we do keep coming back to avionics. Are we in the midst of a revolution? What capabilities are coming? Can avionics take the place of -- or enhance -- the backup safety function best illustrated by the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System? What about Avidyne for spacecraft? What about the future of GA? Will our grandkids be able to fly the way Dan describes his seaplane commute?

Aero-News: I have a couple of questions. You talked about this three-year cycle. You didn't call it a three year cycle, but you mentioned, "where we were three years ago," versus "where we are today," versus "where we'll be in three years." So obviously we're in a period of very rapid change.

In your opinion, is this a revolution we're going through, or is this perpetual change going to be continuing on [indefinitely]?

Dan: I usually tell people that if you look at five years ago, like 2000, to five years from now, 2010, it'll be the most rapid change of light general aviation instrumentation and avionics that there has been in history. In any decade in history.

But I also think that there's a fundamental change which is happening, which may cause it to continue that level of rapid change for a while. And that is, the integrated platform going on to these airplanes.

Piper sells a Meridian. Last year. It has the Meggitt glass, which is pretty good, it's got the Garmin radios, which are pretty good, it's got the S-Tec autopilot, which is pretty good. And L-3 sensors, and Honeywell radar. All of these systems are good sensors, good systems. And they all work well. But they have very limited interactions with each other.

Aero-News: Cause they were developed in a stovepiped environment.

Dan: Now that same airplane, five years from now, all of those systems, whether they're made by different companies or the same company, will all be on high-bandwidth data buses, sharing all the data that they have. And you will basically have a platform, the airplane and its avionics as a platform, where, if there is some futuristic concept that you want to do, all the bits and pieces will all already be there, and they'll all already be hooked up!

And if I can put a software update into the radar, and into the display, and turn it into a ground terrain following radar, it'll all already be hooked up.

Aero-News: So it'll be like adding a network node onto the bus....

Dan: Or maybe, not even a node. Maybe doing a software upgrade across the entire network.

So what'll end up happening in the future, is by adding node hardware, or by updating the software of the various systems, you'll get composite functionality. Where it might modify two of three systems. Let's see, if I've already got a radar altimeter and I've already got an autopilot, and I've already got WAAS, I can probably make an autolander.

Well, nobody's talking about autolanders, but that airplane that's delivered in the future is basically going to have all the bits and pieces to do that.

Aero-News: It's a hard sell to pilots, an autolander.

Dan: Ah, but it's not to their significant other. If the pilot has an incapacitation event. Like the Cirrus thing that happened.

Note: see these two Aero-News links:

Aero-News: Well, it certainly beats the parachute, doesn't it. Not that the parachute hasn't been an advance.

Dan: The parachute's a great idea. But what I tell Alan Klapmeier is, I say, I'm a fan of the parachute thing. But I think some of those parachute pulls we should be able to save them by avionics. And some of them, they did need the parachute pull. Like the guy with the aileron that went out. You know, that's a parachute pull.

Schwinn is referring here to the October 3, 2002 deployment by Lionel Morrison -- see:

Aero-News: A couple of these people that were lost in IMC over mountains... that's different.

Dan: They oughta be able to fix that with better avionics.

Aero-News: But it's better to pull the parachute than to wind up in an NTSB report. (Note: pulling the parachute gets you an NTSB report too, just not a fatal).

Dan: So, that's kind of what's happening over the next few years. The integration will happen. All the systems will end up talking to each other, exchanging much more data. And then you're going to have the ability to create composite functions that are beyond what anybody's really thinking about right now.

So that's what I think, over the next five years everything'll be integrated, and the user interface'll be a little better, and the airplanes'll be easier to use, and way more reliable, and all that kind of stuff. Some people can relate to that.

But I think the part that's beyond that, is very interesting composite functions start appearing. That can't work on an airplane -- they could, but it's much harder to do [without this integration].

Aero-News: Add some new capabilities that we can't even imagine.

Dan: Yeah. That's right.

Aero-News: And let me ask one more question. This is just kind of an "out there" thing. But one of the things that fascinated me about going to Mojave for the X-Prize launches was the way that that was, in its own way, a very integrated aircraft. In-house at Scaled, with about 100 people working on the project, they built their own airframe, they designed their own motor, even though they had it built elsewhere, they came up with a whole new concept of re-entry, and they built a [primary flight] display to support that, which, if you're going exoatmospheric, you need a different sort of display. They actually constructed one that had the attitude references that, for example, Mike Melvill needed to correct the rolls on the X1 flight. And they learned a few things.

But Rutan certainly dreams of exoatmospheric GA. He dreams of GA going into space. He dreams of a bizjet that you can take off here and fly yourself from New York to Tokyo, by going up there.

Dan: Essentially, ballistic.

Aero-News: I don't even know where his dreams go. I wouldn't be surprised --

But for you, have you given any thought, have you put any of your imagination or your people's imagination towards navigation or flight displays for space travel?

Dan: We haven't very much. We actually talked to Scaled somewhat when they were working on their display, but...

I think that we'd probably be the most likely choice, when they start to try and build a vehicle that needs to be certified. On the one hand, we tend to be kind of at the head of the pack in terms of doing advanced stuff, and on the other hand, we make certified avionics, and the FAA approves 'em, and all that kind of good stuff.

Another one of these really forward looking things that we think that we might be able to participate in, is: there's the whole Jetsons idea, and sometimes what SATS is trying to do, is everybody is going to have a car-plane thing in their driveway.

Aero-News (cynically): That's really gotten a lot of legs since 1946.

Dan: So that may be a little far out. And at this point there's so much skepticism associated with it that it's almost a credibility buster. But one thing that I don't think needs to be, is that....

...You know, the pace of utilization and growth of general aviation has not kept up with population growth since 1940, '50. Now, there were a lot of airplanes sold in the sixties and seventies. But the utilization really wasn't really going up that high.

Aero-News: The barriers to entry are very high, and not just money --

Dan: The barriers to *stay in* are somewhat high. So, there's a contribution that we might be able to make, there. Which is to vastly reduce the difficulty to safely operate an airplane. Both in terms of initial training and operation, and in terms of retaining your currency.

And, so much of being a safe pilot is being prepared for situations you're never going to handle. So I see part of our future direction being, not necessarily the Jetsons thing, but really, just trying to get it so airplanes are not becoming more and more complex. And the airspace isn't getting more and more intimidating. And the systems management in failure conditions isn't getting more and more complex -- in fact, all that stuff is getting easier and easier and easier.

Aero-News: The big red PANIC button, "Take me home!"

Dan: The big red PANIC button, or just, enough redundancy and enough system capability so that no matter what Mother Nature throws at you, you're going to be able to handle it. You have that confidence.

And the system is certified. it's not that it's there, "maybe." It's gonna be there.

Those are the kinds of things that we really think about, in terms of how we can, in a very long-term, visionary way, impact GA air transportation.

Obviously, we're not about airframes and engines, and a lot of airframe and engine stuff is going to have a huge contribution to this. Look at what Cirrus and Columbia and Eclipse have done by being willing to build completely new airframe configurations. The engine guys tend not to move that quickly, but there's a whole bunch of new engines that are sitting there, right over the horizon. So that may significantly change things.

We think that the avionics side of things is really, really, really significant to change that equation.

Now, how hard is it to get into this, and how hard is it to stay efficient at it and make something useful out of it, get some utility out of it?

Aero-News: I have to tell you, first time I sat behind an Avidyne panel, in a Cirrus SR22, [long story shortens to: I thought it would be hard to use, but it was surprisingly natural]. And about ten minutes into the flight, I was appreciating things like traffic, that I'd never had before. I'd been out there flying in that same airspace, and I didn't *know* that there was somebody 900 feet above.

Dan: Yeah. They're all over the place. And that's the kind of experience. You're an experienced pilot, and you've flown ultralights and all these other kinds of airplanes. Well, I was talking to somebody yesterday whose sister in law's father just went out and bought an SR22. And has never flown before in his life.

Aero-News: Alan pushes that. "Learn to fly in the SR22."

Dan: We've got to make that experience, really, pretty easy. Because if you think about people, in a lot of cases, if they don't get the bug early -- and then they're basically, broke due to aviation, forever -- a lot of people, they make some money after they've been working for a decade or something like that, finally they're financially secure, but they're not like kids anymore. So they want to do this in a relatively -- first of all, it's got to be safe. And second of all, it can't be *that* difficult. And I think that it's *that* audience that we really, really have the ability to impact the experience that they have.

Aero-News: Let me tell you a story. We had a guy come to us. He had started to learn to fly in 1966 and ran out of money. Well, now he's retired, he has the money, his wife says it's OK, he can come along and learn to fly. And I said, "OK. Let me sit down for an hour with you and tell you what has changed since 1966."

Dan Schwinn (laughing): In other words, everything!

Aero-News: And the poor guy went out of there with his eyes this big. He is going to come back and fly with us, but "classes of airspace? What's that?"

Dan Schwinn: TFRs, Positive control airspace.

Aero-News: You need a signoff to fly a taildragger? I said, not only do you need a signoff, you probably won't get insurance. All that's changed, just in our own lifetime. Maybe not your lifetime [aside to Jamie Luster, who was born long after 1966]. But my lifetime.

My father's first lesson, I sat in the baggage compartment. No seat. In the Cessna 150 he took his first lesson in. If an instructor did that today, he would be kept miles from his ticket for the rest of his life.

So things change, they change for understandable reasons, everyone is trying to pursue safety in their own way.

Dan: If you think about a car in 1950 and a car in 2005, there's been steady progress along the way. They've gotten safer and easier to drive and a lot more features functions, and a lot more comfortable.

You think about an airplane, and it was dead flat [laughs in wonder] until just recently, you know? [laughs]. Or maybe it was just rising really slowly.

So I think there's a lot of catching up to be done. That's the standard people have for their cars.

Aero-News: And that's something, certainly, Alan and Dale have worked on that, to try to make that a carlike experience. The new Cessnas, they finally addressed the problem that everyone has, where they get a license and the first passenger they want to bring is the significant other that does not have the flying bug. [Point of tale is flimsy, shoddily built planes alarm non-pilots].

Things change. People have a higher expectation. I mean, I love old cars, I have a 65 Mustang. But compared to a modern car, it's a piece of junk. It's flimsy.

Dan: It somehow manages to be much heavier, and much less safe.

Aero-News: It's actually much lighter and much less safe. It's about 2800 lbs. A current one is probably 3600 or so. Most of which is stuff that keeps you from getting killed if you hit something. All the safety equipment that we've come to expect in cars is absent.

Dan: Safety and comfort.

Aero-News: My pickup truck -- cheapest one I could buy, nine thousand dollars -- came with airconditioning.

Dan: Power windows?

Aero-News: No, it has cranks. But people get in the truck and look for the switch, because they're so used to them now.

And people come to our flight school, and I take 'em out to a 1979 172 with a door like a piece of tin, cracked Royalite....

So the wave of the future is coming in so many ways. New powerplants, new materials, new concepts of design, and the quality of the experience is different for everybody, right down the line.

I would hate to see the general aviation I know and love go and be replaced by a scene where everybody goes to an ab-initio program to get an airline job. Already there's only a few cranks out there working on round engines or flying fabric airplanes.

Dan: Or, even, private aviation gets to the point where it's just a real rich man's thing.

Aero-News: It could get like it is in Japan. In Japan, it's almost forbidden.

Dan: Or it could just be that nobody does it. Cause it's just not worth it. And you know, that's kind of what I worry about.

You know, I have a seaplane. I fly down to Cape Cod, land in the water, I drive it up on the beach near my house. And I can drive it back and forth to here. So that means I can go down to the seaplane, put whatever I want in it, take off -- there's not even an airport there, never mind security -- and aim directly at Boston, fly directly to Boston except end up at Hanscom.

And you wonder whether or not that world is still going to exist in another fifty years.

We're trying to make that happen [GA to stay viable]. And especially with the guys like Cirrus and Eclipse. I mean, we can do a lot, but at the end of the day, for some stuff you need an airframer who's willing to really go out on a limb, and both of those companies have done that.

Vern and Alan are probably the two main visionaries in the industry today.

FMI: www.avidyne.com


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