A Visit With Aspen Avionics
Revolutionary avionics in a culture of entrepreneurship, innovation and industry collaboration
Aspen has always behaved like a start-up operation—a trait they proudly cultivate to this day. Founded in 2004 by former employees of Eclipse Aviation (who manufactured the Eclipse 500, one of the very first very light jets), Aspen Avionics set out to create advanced avionics that could be retrofitted into legacy cockpits at an affordable price.
Funded heavily by venture capital, the company’s first success was in 2005 with their AT300 Hazard Awareness Display, vertical speed indicator (VSI) and terrain avoidance system. The company grew quickly, launching their flagship product in 2007, the popular Evolution EFD1000, “drop-in” glass cockpit.
The EFD1000 revolutionized the GA cockpit in many ways. First, retrofitting the unit into a “steam gauge” panel was a simple task. The unit literally slides into a standard three-inch instrument slot.
Today, with more than 5,500 aircraft installations globally, Aspen Avionics’ EFD1000 has become a standard-bearer in the industry.
Aspen’s headquarters is a nondescript business park within the environs of metropolitan Albuquerque. Dominated by the massive Sandia Mountains to the northeast, the city has been on the fringes of scientific development since the nearby Sandia Base was established in 1946 as the top-secret center of the Manhattan Project—the United States’ development of nuclear weapons.
“Hi! Nice to meet you!” says Tom Gray, with more enthusiasm than should be allowed this early in the day. Gray puts out his hand and I’m welcomed into Aspen’s inner world. Their hangar is quiet this morning in anticipation of our test flight.
Gray is one of Aspen’s test pilots and engineering representatives, and he’s responsible for running their constantly evolving products through real-world flying scenarios.
He’s also an expert in the FAA’s certification quagmire, and knows what the feds expect and how to test components to meet their exacting standards. Escobedo will accompany us this day as we wring out some of Aspen’s newest goodies in their specially modified Piper Lance.
The Lance is one of several test beds for Aspen’s products. It has a custom panel that’s modified for the task of testing avionics. It’s configured so components can be added, removed, selected and mixed in various combinations. To my musician mind, the panel reminds me of the patch bays used in recording studios, allowing the engineer to select a certain component or bypass it in favor of another, or to run several at once.
If that didn’t grab you, you need to step back and realize what this technology means. First, Connected Pilot is able to receive data from almost any panel-mounted GPS navigator. If you use the popular Garmin GNS 400W/500W series navigators (like the ubiquitous Garmin 430W), Connected Pilot lets you enter and synchronize flight plans between it, a smart portable device (like an iPad) and flight planning apps that are “Connected-enabled.”
The technology creates a wireless link that allows your smart device to communicate with your Aspen Evolution Flight Display and your avionics network. You can create a flight plan at home on your iPad in an app like ForeFlight, WingX or others, then wirelessly upload that to your Garmin 430W, and then fly it with your Aspen display. Afterward, you could wirelessly retrieve the trip’s flight data and process it in the comfort of your easy chair.
I got to see the power of Connected in action during a flight in the Lance. Gray set up a flight plan on his iPad while in the hangar. Once in the airplane, Gray showed me how—at the press of a single button—his iPad connects securely (with encryption) to the Lance’s Garmin 430W and feeds it the multiple-waypoint flight plan. I accept the flight plan by pressing a button on the 430W. Instantly, the Evolution display changes, and the whole plan is loaded. Total elapsed time: maybe three seconds.
Culture Of Collaboration
Marketing Manager, Angela Anderson, is my guide and host at Aspen Avionics, and she’s the face of Aspen for many pilots who frequent Oshkosh or other aviation shows throughout the year. An experienced pilot from an aviation family, Anderson’s genuine enthusiasm is further evidence of Aspen’s entrepreneurial culture. “We operate very much like a small company,” she says, “and we listen very closely to our customers.”
Earlier, Gray had told me how many of the modifications being tested in the Lance are a direct result of customer comments at the various aviation shows. Anderson and her team spend most of their Oshkosh time at the “North 40″ listening to suggestions from all different types of pilots, then bringing them back to Albuquerque to become possible system enhancements.
Aspen’s entrepreneurial culture extends throughout the company. They’ve become one of the first avionics companies to truly collaborate with competitors to give pilots a better and safer cockpit. Their work with Avidyne on the DFC90 digital autopilot has yielded tremendous technology gains and more features in the cockpit. Aspen is now working directly with Bendix/King on the KSN 770 project to provide deep integration with it. Bendix is but one of nearly 20 companies Aspen is collaborating with to create a better product. “Building integrated products is baked into our DNA,” explains Brad Hayden, Aspen’s VP of Marketing. “It is the key to general aviation’s future, and we openly promote integration with other companies.”
As to the future, a recent infusion of venture capital funding will allow Aspen Avionics to continue their innovating trend. Hayden hints to greater integration and unprecedented capabilities in their avionics systems. Aspen’s Connected Panel product will continue to evolve, allowing secure, wireless communication to and from more devices. “We have big stuff coming,” Hayden tells me. “We will introduce products that use the aviation data stream that we uncovered with the Connected product, and expand it in many ways.” Judging from the flight testing out at Double Eagle, the future for pilots is exciting.
Hayden, Gray and everyone I meet at Aspen speak to the power of collaborating and listening to the company’s large customer base. “If you see something you feel needs improvement, let us know right away,” I hear in every corner of the company.
Although a lot of companies listen to their customers, Aspen does it with a sense of zeal and immediacy. Also, working together with their competitors has become a way of life at Aspen. “Our displays have become smart devices, and we want them to become even smarter,” Hayden finishes. “And we welcome any conversation with other manufacturers.”
Aspen Avionics’ “secret” is really no secret at all. They listen closely to pilots at the grassroots level, and create products for them that make flying safer and easier. Their enthusiastic collaboration with others is giving GA—and soon the rotorcraft and military world—some great products.
Just as physicist Isaac Newton promoted nature’s simplicity, Aspen Avionics’ test pilot Tom Gray reveals theirs: “What we do is take all that data from GPS, autopilots, sensors and electronics,” he smiles, “and make it relevant to the pilot.”