GPS only the start. Here are some things I see on the horizon.
1. Weather information.
In-cockpit satellite weather is now available. It can be extremely valuable in a contest. The visible satellite loop and radar loop in particular can help with the agonizing decision, do I go on in this turn area or go deep in the next one, 60 miles away? Both loops would help start decisions, and profoundly affect MAT strategy. The radar loop would make a big difference in threading thunderstorms – or deciding that even though 5 guys ahead are trying it, threading the thunderstorm line really isn’t such a good idea.
So far, it isn’t widely used, and it is illegal. So far, it’s a bit cumbersome. Our instrument designers have not incorporated easy-to-use displays, though they are common in general aviation. I forecast that just like GPS, we will continue to resist for a while, then we will give in once units cross the $1000 price barrier, are incorporated in soaring electronics, and pilots are using them in recreational flying.
Flarm is a anti-collision device based on interchange of GPS position via short-range radio. It was developed in Europe and is extremely successful there with upwards of 13,000 units sold. It is coming to the US in the 2011 season, and contest pilots seem to be on the path of instant adoption. As of October 2010, over 100 units have been ordered.
Flarm’s potential to reduce the danger of midair collisions is obvious. However, we must be careful of the “Spikes on the dashboard” problem. (My colleague Sam Pelzman once wrote a brilliant article in economics when auto safety regulation was being developed. He pointed out that, if you really want to reduce car accidents, you should put sharp steel spikes on the dashboard. They people would avoid accidents in the first place!)
I detect a little bit of this problem in European contests. Pilots accept 30 glider gaggles, taskers call tasks that lead to 30 glider gaggles, and organizers allow start procedures with 150 gliders in a small area with 2,500’ cloudbases. Perhaps the thought “well, everyone has Flarm so midairs won’t be a problem” is leading to a little bit of complacency, or acceptance of risks that would otherwise be rejected. Reducing gaggles and midair possibilities is very much on CDs minds in US contests that have not had flarm so far. Let's hope it stays that way.
3. Thermal detector.
The biggest piece of technology on the horizon is the long-awaited thermal detector. Many physical principles can work. Radar can measure the speed or concentration of birds, insects or other gliders. Dopper lidar measures airspeed by tracking dust. Microwave or infrared can spot the higher water concentration of thermals; and infrared can see their heat. All of these technologies work right now in large expensive power-hungry ground-based forms. All it takes is the usual miniaturization and development to make them work in a glider. And remember, even knowing what the air is doing 100 yards away would be a revolutionary change. If there were any military application we’d have it now. (Can anyone think of a military application for a thermal detector?!) If the soaring market were 100 times larger, we’d have it now.
Like the vario or GPS story on steroids, we can predict the response. Many pilots will bemoan it, as the end of soaring. But soaring will never be easy. Within a few years, every silver c student in a 1-26 will feel he needs one.
I for one look forward to it. The thermal detector will mean the end of start gate roulette, gaggling, and leeching. It will bring the biggest increase in our flying abilities since composite aircraft and laminar airfoils. And it will be the biggest bang for the buck we’ve ever seen. Even if units cost $10,000, they will bring my far more performance than my current temptation, trading in my ASW27 and $80,000 for an 18 meter glider. And I think they will enhance safety, in addition to the end of gaggles. If you know where the lift is, you’re more likely to find it; if you know there is no lift, you’re more likely to calmly glide to a good landing spot.