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Mon, Nov 14, 2005

Avidyne's Dan Schwinn: 'We've Been All About Ease-Of-Use' (Part Three)

Interview With Dan Schwinn Of Avidyne, Part III Of VI

In July of this year, we sat down in a conference room at Avidyne's Bedford, MA headquarters with Avidyne's President, Dan Schwinn. In a wide-ranging interview we discussed Avidyne's products, some of its future plans and possibilities, and a bit of the future of GA in general.

You've already read Parts I and II of Aero-News's July interview with Avidyne President Dan Schwinn. In those parts of the interview, Dan proudly described the range of Avidyne's OEM customers He also tells us how a recent flight -- as a passenger -- in an Avidyne-equipped plane taught him how Avidyne users are taking advantage of the capabilities of the datalink system in ways even he hadn't expected.

In Parts III (today) and IV, you'll get the inside scoop on how Avidyne turned to a savvy old airline captain when it was first integrating radar with its systems, and how Avidyne is working with Eclipse Aviation on the most integrated aircraft in GA history -- maybe in the history of all aviation. Dan also gives his view of LSA.

And in the forthcoming Parts V and VI, we talk about the future. That's where I ask loopy questions about Avidyne's future making integrated avionics for private spacecraft and light sport aircraft, and Dan dismisses those ideas as loopy -- except, he doesn't, exactly. Will Avidyne be in the heaviest bizjets, or in airliners? What are the obstacles? And what about the future of GA in general -- does it have one?

The interview picks up with Captain Archie Trammell, a radar expert whose instruction made him the go-to guy for getting the most out of onboard radar. As Dan reveals, Avidyne grabbed that experience as soon as they knew they were going to put radar on their displays. Here's what happened.

Dan Schwinn (right): You know, Archie Trammell was the guy who for many, many years taught people the nuances of using an onboard radar. And we had him come here and do a class at Avidyne. We rented him for the day and he came in and he did his whole class. And this was when we were first starting to do radars.

We don't actually make the radar, we make the display. So we had all these people making radar displays, and we had all these brilliant ideas for how we could take the data coming out of the sensors and show it, and it's like, "Is this a good idea or is it not a good idea? We need somebody who KNOWS something about this stuff."

So we had him come in and train all of our engineering and marketing people on what radar can, and can't, do for you.

And that influenced our future product design. On how we display -- we take an old radar and we can colorize it, we can do range eliminating, we can figure out how we can do all this great stuff with it.

But which of it is a good idea, and which of it is a bad idea?

Aero-News: You've gotta give pilots things that meet their expectations. But at the same time, here you're giving them something they've never had before.

Dan Schwinn: Well, that happens with datalink. Nobody's ever had this before. And I think in general, it's just going to be one of the best utilities that's been added to the flight deck -- probably since area navigation.

For heavier guys, maybe enhanced ground prox[imity warning] should be on the list. But for light GA guys, there's not quite as much of a percentage of CFIT as there was with the big guys. So I'd say that this datalink is going to be one of the most important things to happen.

And then, of course, you have all the different guys providing the various forms of it [datalink]... they're all doing well with it.

Aero-News: Now, that's another thing. We have a bunch of people in the industry doing different things with their displays. I've long been a fan of Chelton because of the way they do the terrain and obstacles. Are we ever going to see any of that on the Avidyne side?

Dan Schwinn: Yeah. We're probably going to take a little bit different approach than Chelton did, in the sense that you will probably see us incrementally adding synthetic vision type features to our displays. Rather than what Chelton did: they basically did a whole large amount of things at once.

We'll probably put a bunch of things on there, try to prove 'em out, make sure they work.

You know, one of the things that we've got, is the case that there's three Cirruses a day going out with our flight decks in them. And another one a day from Piper. So with that kind of a volume base, we have to be a little bit more conservative in terms of some of the innovation that we do.

So, what I think'll happen on the Synthetic Vision side, is that we're likely to put together a kind of initial capability, and serve it up to our OEM customers. And get a lot of input on it. In some camps, there'll be resistance to change.

And then we'll have some kind of a Syn-Viz Release One. And do some interesting things.

The other thing we have to accommodate, when we have thousands of users out there with our products already, is that we have to have a very clear plan for who gets to upgrade into what, and who doesn't. What is only available on new systems?

Aero-News: You must have several iterations of systems out there. I imagine there's 2,000 Cirruses out there now.

Dan Schwinn: Yes, over 2,000, and some 1,800 of them have our equipment. But there are different generations of them.

But you know, to date -- other than the people who don't have a PFD -- there isn't a single function we've added that you couldn't put on your first one that ever shipped.
Aero-News: PFD Systems.

Dan Schwinn: Well, you know, the first MFD, that went out three and-a-half, four years ago, can do CMAX Charts and can do XM Weather. So to date, there has not been a single feature that we have added to our systems, that the first guy to get one can't have.

But that's not going to go on forever!

Aero-News: There's going to be a time when you say you're not going to support the Mark I...

Dan Schwinn: It's not that we won't support them. It's that... maybe not every single new feature will be available on the very first thing we ever made. We haven't got to that point yet. I think we're going to be able to do some syn-viz on the systems that are out there now. But at some point, if we're doing, like super-high-density 3D terrain modeling, [we're not going to be able to do it on all existing Avidyne hardware].

Well, the other possibility is that, up to date it's all been software upgrades. At some point there may be a kind of a more powerful... something or other, required.

Aero-News: A "forklift upgrade" on the box...

Dan Schwinn: Yeah. Not with a real forklift, maybe. But the point is, that we have to really think through where we take people. And of course, the ideal thing is for customers to be able to upgrade it as inexpensively and as long as possible, so that's kind of our prime directive.

It's not always going to be possible, but that's where we start.

Aero-News: How do customers do an upgrade? Do you get a large number of people come back for the new features in their older system?

Dan Schwinn: Yeah. Jamie [Luster, of Avidyne] just worked on one [program that we just rolled out, putting XM and CMAX on one of the EX 500s. [Note: Avidyne's previous-generation MFD was the FlightMax750. The current-production MFD is the EX500). The numbers -- what are they now?

Jamie Luster: I would say 85% upgraded their software to the new features. And out of those, probably 60% upgraded to XM [which requires buying a subscription] and maybe 40% got the CMAX.

Aero-News: Wow. So it's really getting good penetration.

Dan Schwinn: Yeah, it's huge.

Now we rolled this out -- when did we first talk about it, probably in fall last year -- we did XM on Cirrus at Oshkosh. And then we did XM on everything else, and multilink, and all that other stuff at AOPA and all of that.

And so what's happening is, about six months have passed, in which anybody who's paying attention to any publication whatsoever --

Aero-News: Goes, "I can get this on my MFD!"

Dan Schwinn: And we did a promotion to get it to 'em cheaper and get it sooner, because we like to get everybody to upgrade. 'Cause they're going to be happier customers.

Aero-News: And of course, it tightens up your support costs. If you're maintaining fewer iterations, fewer versions.

Dan Schwinn: But just in this last case, in a couple of quarters, we've shipped out huge amounts of upgrades. Cirrus has gotten a huge amount of upgrades on XM and new charts features. So we get pretty good uptake on that.

Aero-News: And I imagine that becomes a sort of a profit center for you as well.

Dan Schwinn: Sometimes it is. For example -- and there are a lot of reasons behind this -- people who wanted to upgrade to the charts feature, that was a cost option, and it was a significant cost option. So that was a profitable feature.

What we did for people who already had datalink weather, we basically said, "This is the next generation of datalink, we now call it Multilink, 'cause it supports multiple links, but you've already paid for datalink capability so it doesn't cost you anything to upgrade.

So it depends. If you get a new feature that's an enhancement of an old feature, we might just do it on a goodwill basis. But if its something brand new and a high-function thing, [we'll charge].

In the case of the Jeppesen plates, we actually have a cost associated with that, because we had to license the technology from Jeppesen. So there's a number of factors which go in to the pricing decision.

Aero-News: My point is, you're not just an OEM business here.

Dan Schwinn: Oh, yeah. Well, we've got the OEM business of selling boxes to guys who build airplanes. We have the aftermarket, which is selling boxes to guys who already have an airplane. And then we have, sort of, another element of the aftermarket, which is selling upgrades to either one of those two parties.

Some people call that second one, "retrofit." So they call it, OEM, Retrofit, and Aftermarket. We call 'em both "aftermarket."

Aero-News: What about the experimental market? Are you selling into that at all?

Dan Schwinn: We sell into it, but not very much.

Aero-News: I imagine it's a costly system. A lot of those guys are price sensitive.

Dan Schwinn [to Jamie Luster]: Do we keep track of that? We probably sell a few EX500s to experimental guys?

Jamie Luster: A few, and to Lancair Kit. A couple last quarter. [NOTE: In Aero-News's interview with Lancair's Kim Lorentzen, she described how Lancair is doing a lot of instrument-panel completions with advanced Avidyne panels].

Dan Schwinn: The experimental guys have the option of using lower-cost stuff than all of us certified guys tend to make. Which allows them to get stuff from vendors like OP Technologies and Blue Mountain Avionics. They're making some, what appear to be pretty interesting non-certified products, that a lot of experimental guys are buying.

Aero-News: They don't have the cost base that you have, in order to get it through [certification].

I mentioned this to Jamie before. At one time you ran on the NT kernel?

Dan Schwinn: All of our MFD stuff runs on embedded NT.

Aero-News: Oh, it still does!? I remember talking to somebody a long time ago [note -- this was in the 1990s] and they were concerned about the possibility of getting that certified.

Dan Schwinn: We've had it certified for a long time. But the interesting thing is, and we've had this happen sometimes with our blessing, and sometimes without -- you know, if you take it apart you can install different software on the system.

So when we sell a couple of units to MITRE, to use on an experimental flight test basis, of course that's what we expect them to do with it. But you sell them to some guy driving a Lancair experimental, and he's playing around, putting different applications on his MFD, then it's no longer certified.

Which is fine, because they don't require it to be certified [in Experimental aircraft]. But it's also no longer gonna necessarily work right! Which isn't necessarily fine.

Aero-News: And once it leaves your shop, to an experimental guy like that, you have no control over it any more. But you may still have a liability tail.

Dan Schwinn: That's right. And we don't really have control over it to anywhere it goes. But the fact is, if you want to maintain it certified, the we do have a sort of control, because we're the only ones who can modify the software.

It's TSO'd, and a company would need a supplemental type certificate or be an OEM [who can add it to their type certificate -- ANN]. That's our installation basis.

Aero-News: Have you issued AD's on this? [Yeah, we know, sloppy wording, only FAA issues AD's -- ANN]

Dan Schwinn: We haven't yet. But if we ever have a significant problem, we would put out a mandatory service bulletin and we would request that the FAA do an AD. And they would probably do that.

If you did a mandatory service bulletin that wasn't for a safety-related reason, the FAA probably wouldn't be willing to do an AD. But assuming it was for a safety reason, they would.

To Be Continued...

FMI: www.avidyne.com


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