Of the more popular seminars at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh over the last few years, the ones about smartphones and tablets tend to draw the most attendees. And, a show of hands at any one of these presentations will easily lead you to conclude that virtually everyone flying a small airplane now uses one to get to where they’re going.
Personal smartphones and tablets can be used for multiple applications within the cockpit. In-cockpit applications (“apps”) supported by personal electronic devices (such as iPads, iPhones, Android-based tablets and phones) provide panel-mounted instrument capability that rival what you have mounted in your aircraft’s panel. These have the functionality to provide features such as attitude, airspeed, altitude, heading, compass and vertical speed. They also provide navigation, weather, and flight planning support.
Smartphones and tablets that provide attitude and heading reference system (AHRS) data typically use microelectromechanical system (MEMS) gyros to generate their screen information. In addition to providing information such as pitch and bank, these handheld units can also provide automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) information, wide area augmentation system (WAAS) GPS data, and air traffic and weather information. Airspeed data can be displayed via connectivity to the aircraft’s pitot and static ports, or it can be GPS-derived. Engine instrumentation data can also be integrated into the units. Airport information and flight plan filing are also served by use of smartphone and tablet technology.
Smartphone and tablet solutions for the cockpit also have the power to display synthetic vision systems (SVS) that provide a 3-D reality of the environment in which you’re flying. Sometimes referred to as “highway in the sky” technology, this feature provides situational awareness by linking displays to databases of known terrain and obstacles. The navigation component of a synthetic vision system is achieved through the use of GPS and inertial reference systems.
Some avionics manufacturers offer interconnectivity between smartphone and tablet apps, and panel-mounted displays in the cockpit. Such connected panel technology allows you to transfer information from your smartphone or tablet – a flight plan, for instance – to the installed avionics that reside permanently on your aircraft’s panel.
Split-screen displays can be configured into some handheld devices. Though not practical on a device as small as a smartphone, you can split your screen on your tablet, and show your aircraft attitude information alongside weather and/or navigation data. Landscape or portrait displays are preference options that you can also select on various units, to optimize the view that best accommodates your cockpit layout.
Information that is transmitted to smartphones or tablets uses off-the-shelf software apps to interpret and display its data. Such apps are acquired from vendors by means of Internet and App Store downloads. ForeFlight (with its ForeFlight Mobile product), Hilton Software
(developers of WingX Pro) and Garmin (developers of Garmin Pilot) are just a few of the companies that are driving the technology forward. Dozens of additional developers offer very noteworthy solutions for smartphone and tablet cockpit applications.
Within the cockpit, the units are commonly held in place by means of windscreen suction cups, or cockpit frame-mounted cradles, or by means of kneeboards with straps, or control yoke mounts. However you fasten them down, make sure that they’re secure so as not to become projectiles in turbulence. Inside a cloud in IFR is not when you want to be picking up your tablet from your aircraft’s floor.
One of the primary benefits brought about by the use of such handheld devices is their positive impact on the reduction of cockpit clutter. The briefcase full of charts that you may have once carried onboard is now filtered into a device that you can almost fit into the pocket of your trousers. The downside of such devices is their susceptibility to software failure and power outages. Also, the screens on such devices are often hard to see owing to sun glare, making them almost useless if the sun is beaming its light straight upon it. They are also very susceptible to the effects of overheating.
The functionality available to you from your smartphone or tablet effectively provides a backup glass cockpit that can help you stay aware of your position and surroundings in normal and emergency situations. But, always keep this in mind: smartphones and tablets are not
recommended for use as primary flight instruments in place of panel-mounted equipment. They are best used as back-up instruments only, or as flight support solutions.