Thoughts on Low-Cost Gliding Navigation
Thoughts on Low-Cost Gliding Navigation
Ok, before we start a little DISCLAIMER: The following text only represents my personal, subjective opinion and reflects only upon the personal, subjective experiences I gained over the last years, flying club, private and rental gliders in recreational, cross-country and competition flying and is subject to change and in no way claims to cover the complete subject of "Mobile Navigation". Furthermore I want to stress the importance of visual lookout and the ability for traditional pilotage, which is still required for legal flying operations. The author has no connections with the here presented software or hardware providers.
Flashback to the year 2005: Little Robert just got his gliding license and is now bound to go cross country flying in his club's gliders. But with his airfield being located in an extremely congested airspace, with control-zones, TRAs, MOAs, TMZs and special PPR-Gliding Sectors the old-fashioned pilotage seems to be a bit more challenging than expected and soon his longing for big flights is getting somehow dampened by the fear of violating airspace restrictions while navigating with his 1:250 000 chart and the good old Volkslogger system. And so it takes almost 2 more years until I finally had the courage and experience to find an easy way in and out of our airfield boundaries.
The story that I am telling here is a) true and b) a situation that currently many young glider pilots encounter, especially in the more and more restrictive airspace structure of Europe. With the introduction of sophisticated gliding computers, based on GPS, barometric and inertial-sensor Data, not only competition but furthermore recreational gliding has become easier and less challenging when it comes to the decision-making and navigation portion. Especially systems like the LX-9000, Zeus, AirGlide and Altair bring General Aviation type "Glascockpit" features into the glider cockpit, but unfortunately at costs that not only exceed the financial capabilities of most clubs but also sometimes are more expensive than the car, which we young pilots own.
Looking at the constrained budgets of fresh pilots it is out of question that those systems are not affordable and furthermore not practical by any means since most pilots do not have their own plane and therefore require something more "flexible". Basically a system that can be used independently from glider type and cockpit layout. To make it even more complicated the system should not exceed a financial red-line at around 150 Euros.
Basically for two big reasons. First: Juniors do not have much money. Obviously, D'uh! Second: These boys and girls have just started with flying, they still do not know what they really want to with their license and therefore are only taking sneak peaks into every branch of our beautiful sport. It is pretty clear that neither they are in the need for a completely integrated, IGC-certified solution which supports newest task-options for central competitions, world-records or traffic-radar and AHRS options, nor are they willing to invest in something like that. They don't even know if they want to do this, so why overload them with features and costs that they aren't even sure if they want to invest into. It should be simple, cheap, affordable but offer the young pilot the chance to finally get safely out of the home airfield's vicinity.
...So where do we start?
The best probably is to identify a few goals that we want to achieve:
2) Simple, Easy-to-use and Maintain
3) Reliability, (Fail-Safe?)
4) Basic Features, e.g. Map, Emergency Fields, Glidepath information and especially AIRSPACE
5) Flexible and easy to employ
Knowing now, what we need we can start and take a look at our options and find a compromise between all of these requirements, obviously with such a small budget there will have to be some cutbacks.
First of all lets start with the heart of our system: The Software.
Over the last few years the Gliding World has seen the rise and fall of dozens of gliding software. Currently there are 7 sophisticated software solutions around that all have pretty much the same amount of users and seem to get enough support from its developers. StrePla, SeeYouMobile, iGlide, WinPilot, XCsoar, LK8000 and GPS Log. With the first four being commercial products we will completely disregard them.
Don't get me wrong; I think these programs are fantastic to use and offer great features, however you have to buy a license which would eat up our small budget almost entirely. So let us take a closer look at two of the freeware solutions: LK8000 and XCsoar.
LK8000 is a software which is purely developed for devices running Windows CE, which is mostly found on HP Ipaqs, LX MiniMaps, Car Navigators and handheld GPS devices of all sorts.
XCsoar offers the same software for different types of operating systems like Windows CE, Android, E-Book readers and some custom solutions like the ALTAIR integrated gliding computer.
Looking at the list of features, LK8000 and XCsoar basically offer the same features and are pretty much comparable, furthermore they both stem from the same source code. The decision what you should use is up to you. Some prefer the more "sterile" layout of XCsoar others however are fascinated by the graphical features of LK8000.
The end result is the same: You get a moving map system with airspaces, final-glide, integrated basic variometer and averager, height above ground and much much much much more features like live-tracking, flarm radar, weather updating, task.optimization... too much for our beginners but already good to know that there is some growth potential!
Going now back to our requirements we have found a software that offers us basically everything we need for inflight navigation, airspace deconfliction and even a feature that is writing OLC valid logger files. Great!
On a side note XCsoar for example can work in conjunction with the internet page "PROsoar" on which you can play around with tasks on a virtual map and save your tasks in a format which XCsoar automatically recognizes and is selectable on your device. Makes flight planning from home or on the go even more easy!
On to the next step: Let us say we have for example picked XCsoar as our navigation software, we now need something to run that stuff on. preferably something with a screen :P But what device is the perfect one for me? Unlike with software there are big differences in the performance readability and compatibility when it comes to the various devices on the market. Having in mind that we want to spend as less as possible on our system, the big caption "DRAWBACKS" now comes pretty apparent. To sum it up, we can select from a huge pool of new and used systems. All of them can be described as being handheld PCs, Tablets, E-Books, Cellphones or Car-Navigators(so called PNA's) of some sort.
Experience has shown that the best size for such a mobile system usually features a screen of around 4-6 inches. The bigger the screen the bigger is the power consumption and another big factor is the limited space in a glider cockpit. The first idea that comes to our mind is, why re-invent the wheel, why not buy something proven?
Perfectly right! So let us look at the used instruments market. Currently there are a lot of classifieds pages on the world wide web. Just make a quick internet search and you will find them! Most gliding software developer's and pilot's first choice throughout the years was the 2000ish built Ipaq H38XX and H39XX series of handheld computers. They still offer one of the best screens when it comes to sunlight-readability but unfortunately have some disadvantages for our masterplan: They do not have a built-in GPS, requiring some external source, their internal battery has a low capacity when run on maximum brightness (the default setting for flying with any device) and are not in production anymore and most of them seem to have reached the end of their useful live. However the screen is still pretty good and you can get these things used with a lot of additional equipment like a plug-in GPS receiver used for around 50-80 euros. Well within the ballpark!
Another option is a bit faster more modern Ipaq, the H4700 series. The screen is still ok but like its ancestor it is not in production anymore, has limited battery and no GPS receiver, but can still be found on the used market.
Somehow similar it is with a device called Siemens LOOX a handheld device running Windows Mobile featuring finally a built-in GPS and an good display. Power consumption again is high and it is again, out of production for quite a while now.
Another thing which all have in common is a rather slow computing power. A thing that did not matter in the past but with more and more features, high-resolution maps and additional add-ons added by the development teams of gliding software, it becomes more and more an issue.
With that being said, these are only the most famous devices but I think you get the picture.. So although all of them are pretty much in our budget and offer the basic capability of running our desired software, we loose when it comes to computing power, GPS, battery life and availability.
Ok.. so away from PDA's, let us take a look at the so-called PNA's (a.k.a car-navigators). Mostly designed to run a specific navigation program, they all offer an internal GPS, feature screens around 4 to 5 inch and have a little bit better battery power. Their operating software is mostly Windows CE.
The most well received systems in the gliding and paragliding world are purpose built systems called Oudie, Vertica V2, GliderGuider and AVIER all of these system are produced in a small batch for glider pilots and sold by their respective companies. Astonishingly all of them look extremely similar, offering almost the same technical specs. Their displays are top notch when it comes to sunlight readability and some of them even can be ordered with barometric sensors , aviation grade GPS and built in IGC loggers. But again, all of them except the so called OUDIE IGC lack in battery life and the OUDIE IGC comes around 900 Euros. The others come around 200 Euros in average.
So already too expensive and still the battery issue. If we disregard the cool, fancy sensors and the serial port that they offer, we can however use them as an example for our system. A little research on the world wide web shows us that there are a lot of PNAs very similar to the ones above, for a little bit less. The most famous companies being here Wayteq, Holux, HP and MIO. With relatively good screens and built in GPS they are pretty much what we need. Unfortunately already on the edge financially. However taking a look at the used market helps us out. Most of them can be found used around 100 Euros. That would give us around 50 Euros to find a solution for the energy problem.
Thanks to the wide-spread use of smartphones with their insane power consumption you can get external batteries almost everywhere. They can be acquired in different sizes and versions. Their output power is 5V, which is exactly what a PNA requires. Capacity wise however we need around 5000mAh for a long cross-country flight, since the screen of our device will be running at full brightness all the time.
Again don't get me wrong, I think the size of these devices is perfect and especially the purpose built ones offer great advantages over the old series of PDA's but lets get back to our initial requirements: We want an easy to use, plug and play, self-contained system which basically takes care of everything by itself, if needed to.
This is were the "Smartphone" comes into play. The best system for a young pilot, is the device that he or she is already used to, through daily live and even more important, is already paid for. That being the Android Smartphone in my pocket. The computing power of these little computers is well above what gliding software requires, most of them feature a 5 inch Screen and a built-in GPS.
Thanks to XCsoar, there is a software around for Android which can be downloaded via the Play Store and is a) free and b) does take care of its own updates, as long as it is connected to the internet occasionally. Thanks to mobile internet you can upload the IGC files directly via phone to the OLC or Skylines server and thanks to GSM you can even activate a Grand Prix Style live tracking feature. The only thing required in this case would be an external battery pack and some type of socket for cockpit mounting.
A lot of people make use of some sort of suction cup type holders, like the ones you are already using in your car. But be careful! Most clubs dislike the use of these since they might pose a FOD risk during outlandings and damage the canopy integrity in the long run. Options are either: Take your screwdriver and built a little holder for the camera mounting in your glider (Yes, there is a camera mounting in there!) or make use of a "knee-board" type solution. Which can be bought in sport shops as phone/ipod holders for running (Just pick the biggest arm size :P ) There we would have our flexible, portable and self-contained system. ....Wait a minute.... I am still not happy.. We kind of worked around our problem now...
This Android cellphone solution is only good for those that already have such a device. And there is a major setback of that solution that I personally don't like at all. What-if I land out? And I have, due to some bafoonery, basically used up all my power for in-flight navigation? Well, in that case, good luck finding a phone-booth these days! And even more, what-if I have to leave my plane in an emergency situation like e.g. an midair-collision? Well I am safe hanging down from my chute but the ELT is happily peeping in my glider wreckage 20 miles away and the phone just went on tour with the canopy, which I had to jettison in order to leave the plane. So there I am, sitting alone somewhere in the French Alps. Not a really favorable situation. So how do we solve that issue?
From my perspective there are two different approaches for that.
1) I really want to use my phone and therefore I need another phone in my pocket. A cheap phone should be easily available and I can use the SIM card from the other one. However I would loose the live tracking feature and eventually have to spend money on the holder, battery and phone, or even additional SIM card since the new devices use a smaller version of the SIM.
2) I find something comparable to a Smartphone for less money and keep the other thing where it should be, in my pocket. There is a really small niche of "Micro-Tablets"(5-6 inches) that run on Android and offer almost all features of a cellphone, except the GSM (phone) function. The latest developments of Chinese companies offer Car Navigators running Android and featuring Wi-Fi, GPS and SD-Card slots for barely 100 Euros new, including craddles and car-chargers.
The only thing we would need now is the external battery that every system requires and we are done. On a remote place you can use the Wi-Fi port feature of your cellphone to connect your device to the internet and upload and update almost everywhere. No changing of your SIM cards, User Accounts, connecting to desktop computers or bluetooth connections with external GPS sources.
There is your 150 Euro Gliding-System! Drawbacks however come with screen brightness, a common problem with almost all mobile devices but a little research and comparison of the specs could help you out!
Obviously this is just a little play of thoughts from my personal perspective, but I think it is well worth considering if you are not into intense competition flying and just want to get a grasp of cross-country flying. The decision of what you want to use is your own personal preference and I can only recommend to use whatever you think suits your needs the most.
All of the solutions I represented here are working and are only a little snapshot of the huge and growing field of mobile in-flight navigation and should only be considered a starting point for your decision making process.
PS: I was just asked about E-Book readers, namely the KOBO. I know that this system is around and has already found many happy users, but I never saw one of these in real life and therefore do not want to write about something I can not really provide any useful information ,but again a little research will help you out!