One of the most revolutionary devices in aviation right now was never even designed for pilots. The iPad has brought a range of powerful safety features–from up-to-date charts to terrain alerts to in-flight weather–into thousands of cockpits, and for less money than ever before. It’s a rare case of getting more for less in avionics. ForeFlight has become the leader in this growing market, with impressive features and a devoted following. In our latest Special Report article, their CEO shares his thoughts on how a consumer device just might help general aviation grow.
I love the iPad. But I was skeptical at first. The iPhone was a remarkable reinvention of an existing product; the iPad something entirely new and uncertain. First there was the snickering about the name. Questions about its utility and what it might be good for were posed. At ForeFlight, we may have even questioned whether we should spend the time adapting our iPhone app into something suitable for use on the iPad–unthinkable today.
Just before the February 2010 iPad announcement, ForeFlight had made a risky business model change. We switched from a one-time pay app to a subscription model with a 30-day free trial. Sales dropped to nearly zero as prospective customers enjoyed the free samples.
Two weeks after the switch from one time to subscription, sales slowly recovered and our fears about whether we should press on were lessened. Should we, though, continue and invest the time in making “ForeFlight for iPad?” After all, ForeFlight was a hobby business that we worked on nearly all our free nights and weekends, so we still had our day jobs to fall back on. Ultimately, we decided to dive in and we developed ForeFlight Mobile for iPad.
Fast-forward to 2013 with employees, offices in Houston, Austin, and Rock Hill, and a business that has afforded us the opportunity to participate in aviation in many ways. I have traveled to Washington, DC more times than ever imagined to fight against digital chart user fees, briefed a general on how iPads can more efficiently deliver information to pilots that could result in fewer F-16 intercepts, visited Europe to learn what general aviation flying is like abroad, deployed ForeFlight Mobile to two branches of the military, met an amazing array of folks, and purchased my first aircraft.
Other authors in this series will touch on the future of general aviation at a macro level. What I would like to share is my sense of how the iPad will affect aviation for the foreseeable future.
The iPad–which transformed our company from a hobby into a real, successful business–has become so commonplace in cockpits that the crude word associations between the iPad and personal hygiene products are a distant memory. In a few years, I think it is reasonable to predict the vast majority of pilots will carry tablet computers. My two-year old son, if he learns to fly, will likely never use a paper chart.
In a 2012 survey of AOPA membership, pilots were asked about their perceptions with respect to iPads in the cockpit. Our anecdotal beliefs pre-survey were:
- iPad changed pilots’ lives.
- Pilots who start using an iPad don’t want to fly without it; it is a constant companion.
- Pilots are more productive and efficient in the cockpit.
- Pilots have more current information aboard every flight.
- Pilots feel more confident.
- Pilots feel safety is improved.
The survey data results:
- 68% of pilots agree they spend less time locating information than when using paper.
- 61% of pilots agree they are more productive in the cockpit.
- 76% of pilots agree that they are more productive when preparing for a flight.
- 69% of pilots agree they keep aeronautical chart information up to date.
- 70% of pilots want a mostly paperless cockpit in the future.
These results–taken just two years after the iPad introduction–are remarkable. It confirmed some of our beliefs and made us confident the future of iPad in aviation is bright.
The scope of the effects the iPad will have on every corner of aviation is probably enough content for a book. For now, I will focus on a few observations of changes brought by iPads as well as some prognostication.
A couple of years ago, ForeFlight exhibited at its first Sporty’s Fly In. While at the booth, a father and his young daughter approached. The young girl–about four years old–grabbed the iPad sitting on the display. “What’s this, daddy?” she said. Dad responded, “This is the iPad, and this is the route we are going to take home.” She spent the next few minutes panning around the map while dad pointed out interesting things and showed her how to tap out a flight plan with her fingers.
That year, we also received this email from a customer (along with many other “survival” stories):
We found ourselves having to declare an emergency when the landing gear in our Lancair 360 did not deploy at a non-towered airport. While I was occupied with airspeed and emergency procedures, my wife was able to give me frequencies, vectors and situational awareness much quicker than I could from my GPS.
Once we contacted ATC they vectored us to Sacramento International where they had a first response team waiting. The tower and ground crew confirmed the gear malfunction after a low pass. I then executed the emergency procedures along with the emergency gear deployment which functioned correctly and turned a frightening 30 minutes into an uneventful landing.
Your software was certainly a part of us being able to walk away safely.
These dots that later connected helped me to see that the apps have made it easier to include others–non-pilots and enthusiasts–in aviation. This is not unlike the way the iPhone’s remarkable camera has made photography more accessible to many.
Without knowing anything about aviation, this young girl was able to explore aviation maps and her father was able to teach her how to create a basic flight plan by simply tapping different places on the screen and watching the route build. Instead of being tossed an intimidating green FAA airport facility directory, asked to find the relevant airport page, scan to the communications section, the Lancair pilot’s wife was able to use a familiar search box, type an airport identifier, and read the clearly and boldly presented frequencies in ForeFlight Mobile’s airports view.
If apps can include more folks in aviation, keep them connected to aviation, and ultimately simplify tasks like flight planning and interpreting weather, can we add a few more pilots to the population and intimidate folks less?
Something I did not foresee when the iPad emerged is its transformative affect on government–specifically the FAA. The adoption of connected smartphones and tablets has affected how the FAA thinks about some of the services it provides, from charting to flight services.
In a few years, the charting offices of the FAA will look very different. I think it will do more with fewer human and capital resources. For decades, the government has designed, developed, and printed paper charts. This is a significant undertaking. AeroNav, a directorate of the FAA, produces more than 140 individual sectional and IFR en-route charts and more than 15,000 terminal procedures (approach, arrival, and departure procedures, or “plates”). They have a warehouse outside of Washington, DC with giant printing presses and armies of folks in both Oklahoma City and Silver Spring, Maryland, that contribute to the process. They have tricked out computer workstations on which they design these charts that are ultimately bound for the printer.
The demand for paper has declined significantly, though, which means the printing presses work less. Because the demand for paper is down, the need for all of the expensive processes, people, and computer workstations required in the supply chain will decline. Ultimately, preparing products for tablet displays is significantly less expensive. This means fewer folks can maintain these cartographic assets. An appropriate comparison is the cost and time of painting a portrait as compared with the time and cost of snapping a photograph on an iPhone. The FAA needs to find a way out of the portrait painting business.
Another area that will change is the Flight Service program. For years, pilots have called 1-800-WX-BRIEF, which is basically a government-funded concierge desk that will take your flight plan information, read you a weather synopsis, and make flight recommendations. It costs $200+ million a year to provide this concierge desk. If you assume all of the certificated pilots on the FAA registry are active, that’s about $325 per pilot, per year. All 600,000+ registered pilots are not active in a year is my guess, so that dollar figure is higher if I am right.
Historically, the infrastructure required to coalesce weather information and connect to the FAA systems were significant. Dedicated telephone circuits, lots of computer workstations, custom software, training, and more. Flight Service was an operation that required concentrated systems, people, and processes. Automation, though, is taking over and driving call volume down. The FAA would like to reduce that $200 million bill. Apps and automation are affecting Flight Service call volumes.
Computing costs have declined, systems have opened and “auto summarization” technologies have evolved such that fewer pilots are calling flight service because the information they can access on their tablets or phones is faster to get to and in some cases better than what the concierge desk provides.
The rapid adoption of iPad and smart phones will accelerate the pace at which these concierge services are dialed back. I foresee apps for iPads evolving to the point where much of this work is done automatically and the quality of the outputs dramatically improved. A great place to be, technologically, is to put a city pair in ForeFlight Mobile and get a very accurate assessment and recommendation based on all risks including weather inputs and even the biometric data coming off your Apple iWatch.
Connectivity and Big Data
If we step ten years into the future and look back, I think cockpit connectivity will appear to us then as obvious a thing as mobile phones are to us today. Pilots want to load flight plans directly into their avionics. Avionics manufacturers want to innovate, differentiate, and delight their customers. App makers want the same. Some of this has already happened.
In 2011, Aspen Avionics introduced a product that lets apps connect to their systems, send in flight plans, and extract GPS information. ForeFlight was the first app to support this capability. If you own an Aspen CG100, you can use this capability today.
I doubt there is an avionics company today that isn’t thinking about connectivity between portable devices and avionics. But what’s beyond getting connected and simply pushing or pulling flight plans from the avionics?
Big data, for one. Big data is a term for a collection of data sets so large and complex that they become difficult to process. Within that data, though, lives insight. With all the sensors aboard aircraft today–those in the avionics, in portable devices like the Stratus, in our iPads and iPhones–lots of data is generated when we fly. Is there life-saving information within?
In the commercial aviation world, airlines share data that is then used to help them understand how they are performing relative to peers. One airline knows nothing about how other airlines are performing–they only know how they are doing relative to the group. On one hand, the idea of mass collection of data and privacy concerns is obviously frightening and protecting personal information is a pre-requisite to such a thing. On the other, I think life saving information, tailored to the individual pilot, lives within this data.
Am I flying base to final more and more slowly? Am I consistently dipping below the glideslope? Am I landing long and hot? Big data may help answer these questions and more.
Real Time, Dynamic Charting
If the right direction is provided to the FAA’s charting shops, I think it is possible we evolve to a place where what I term “real-time charting” comes into existence. Real-time has a very specific meaning in computing, so I will take some liberty.
Today, aeronautical information is published on standard schedule, which has some relationship to the constraints of delivering printed products. However, airspace and aeronautical information changes constantly. Magnetic variations change and affect the headings we fly and runway names. VORs go down for maintenance and many are being decommissioned, and when a VOR goes offline, that can impact many approach procedures and airways (today they are often replaced with a named fix). Equipment fails and affects the usability of ILS’s. If these changes are not reflected on a chart, they are NOTAM’d.
Yuck. NOTAMS mean a lot of extra reading, and the NOTAM system is a giant catch-all. We can do better.
If we evolve to a state where we do not have to prepare charts for print, and adopt formats and methods of distribution that speed the delivery of aeronautical data that we can turn into digital chart presentations, we can take actions like:
- Automatically color taxiways and runways that are closed or unusable.
- Update an approach chart to show the ILS is out of service. You read and memorize all the NOTAMs anyway, so probably not something that will benefit you, right?
- Remove any airways intersecting a TFR from flight planning engines and charts.
- Indicate on the airport diagram that the PAPI is out of service.
- Display parachute jump activity if the jump zone is actually hot.
- Automatically color the appropriate sections of an approach chart for your aircraft category and equipment aboard when the ceiling at the destination is forecasted below minimums.
The iPad, and the apps that run on them, make many things possible. At ForeFlight, we will continue to look for ways to improve productivity before and during every flight, and find ways to deliver answers that improve decision-making. If we succeed, we can all spend more time flying and looking outside at the magnificent landscape below.