Aspen Avionics’ mobile box stirs buzz

Premium content from New Mexico Business Weekly by Kevin Robinson-Avila , NMBW Senior Reporter

Date: Friday, September 30, 2011, 4:00am MDT

Aspen Avionic’s digital cockpit (above) will be wirelessly connected to iPads with pilot apps, thanks to the company’s recently released “Connected Panel” technology.
Aspen Avionic’s digital cockpit (above) will be wirelessly connected to iPads with pilot apps, thanks to the company’s recently released “Connected Panel” technology.

A little black box called the CG100 could elevate Aspen Avionics Inc. to greater revenue and industry prestige.

The box, dubbed “Connected Panel” by Albuquerque-based Aspen, provides the first plug-and-play system for general aviation pilots to connect wireless mobile devices directly to avionics systems in the cockpit.

It’s a fairly simple idea, but Aspen is breaking new ground, said John Zimmerman, vice president of Ohio-based Sporty’s Pilot Shop, which calls itself the world’s largest retail store for pilots.

“They’re the first and only ones I’m aware of in general aviation to do this,” Zimmerman said. “It’s generating a lot of excitement in the industry.”

Aspen, which launched in 2004, makes digital flight displays for general aviation aircraft, replacing analog systems with modern cockpit panels. The company’s glass cockpits, called the Evolution Flight Display, have become very popular, with $10 million in sales in both 2009 and 2010, up from $7 million in 2008.

But with mobile devices becoming popular among pilots, Aspen realized customers needed a way to connect handheld gadgets, such as iPads and iPhones, directly to its digital system, said Vice President for Marketing Brad Hayden.

“We’re seeing a surge of personal devices coming into the general aviation cockpit, so we developed a bridge, or connected gateway, that allows wireless, Bluetooth and USB connectivity,” Hayden said. “The new hardware connects personal mobile devices to our Evolution Flight Display.”

That represents a technological leap for pilots, who can spend hours on their iPads drawing up flight plans, making changes during flights, and logging data once they’ve landed, said Tyson Weihs, co-founder and managing director of ForeFlight LLC, a Texas-based company that makes mobile apps for pilots.

Pilots enter all that data manually into avionics systems, and later retrieve it by hand for archiving, because the iPad and other mobile devices don’t connect with digital cockpits.

“This technology closes the loop between pre-flight planning, in-flight plan changes, and post-flight logging and archival,” Weihs said. “Pilots can now just press a button to transfer data back and forth between the iPad and cockpit avionics.”

Aspen unveiled the new system this summer at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis.

Since then, 15 aviation companies have partnered with Aspen to develop mobile software applications to be compatible with the Connected Panel, Hayden said. That includes ForeFlight, Sporty’s and other well-known aviation firms, such as Avidyne Corp. and Honeywell Aerospace.

The CG100, which will be installed behind Aspen’s Evolution Flight Display in the cockpit, is based on open-source hardware and software that allows partners to build applications compatible with the device, Hayden said.

Aspen used off-the-shelf components for the system, reducing research and development costs, while making it easier for partners to design new apps to work with the Connected Panel.

“It’s an open platform that provides a base for partners to play with it and design new, innovative things,” Hayden said. “We expect people to come up with many new applications.”

Zimmerman said Sporty’s, which has more than 20 pilot apps on the market for iPhones, has upgraded some to work with Aspen’s system, and it will build new ones specifically for the Connected Panel.

“It’s an enabling technology that allows us to grow the range of products available to pilots,” Zimmerman said.

ForeFlight upgraded its signature preflight planning software, called the ForeFlight Mobile app, to work with the Connected Panel. AvConnect, which sells an iPad application to capture aircraft performance and flight data, is adapting its software to Aspen’s system. And Oregon-based Coradine Aviation Systems is upgrading its data-logging iPad app, called LogTen Pro.

“It’s an opportunity for us to co-brand with Aspen, get in front of Aspen’s customers, and market LogTen Pro in a new way,” said Coradine founder and CEO Noah Lieberman.

Aspen will start selling the Connected Panel this fall for $2,500. Aspen’s partners will sell their apps separately.

Aspen President and CEO John Uczekaj said the Connected Panel and other new products are helping the company grow its revenue this year.

“We’ll reach between $12 and $15 million in 2012,” Uczekaj said.

Aspen released a software system earlier this month that converts some avionics displays into three-dimensional images.

It also won Federal Aviation Administration clearance this past spring to sell its digital avionics for class III aircraft, which weigh between 6,000 and 12,000 pounds. Before, the company could only sell to Class I and II aircraft under 6,000 pounds. And the company obtained approval to install its digital avionics in more types of planes and helicopters, particularly in overseas markets, which account for about 30 percent of sales, Uczekaj said.

Aspen employs 85, up from 65 a year ago, at a 28,000-square-foot facility near Uptown in Albuquerque. It rented a new, 10,000-square-foot hangar this year at the Double Eagle II airport on the city’s Westside to conduct flight tests on avionics products.

Aspen has received about $30 million in venture capital since 2004, including about $8 million from the New Mexico State Investment Council.

Investors are upbeat, said Brian Birk of Sun Mountain Capital, which manages the SIC’s private equity program.

“The Connected Panel is an innovation that could revolutionize general aviation,” Birk said. “It may define the standard for wireless communications in the cockpit.”