Avionics Explained: Which Is Best For Your Aircraft?

Flying or landing an aircraft would be much more difficult without the complex electronic systems that enable you to navigate the airspace or monitor the fuel levels. Having avionics explained without fully grasping the hardware and software sides of these systems is almost impossible as each system is based on a different technology.

Furthermore, all aircraft have built-in avionics systems that determine their performance capabilities, and besides huge investments, upgrading these systems requires you to check their compatibility with the equipment in the aircraft’s cockpit.

Licensed technicians should maintain any of the avionics systems since even the slightest mistake can have catastrophic consequences. So, in this article, we’ll explain the basic concepts of avionics and supply you with the information you need to upgrade your cockpit.

What is Avionics?

All electronic systems featured on an aircraft, spacecraft, or artificial satellites are labeled avionics. The term is a portmanteau of aviation electronics, and Philip J. Klass, who coined the term, first used it in 1949.

The field originates from the early radar or autopilot technologies developed to improve the aircraft defense systems or enable bombers to move steadily enough to hit their targets in the II World War.

Over the years, new systems were developed to enhance the crew’s communication with the tower, monitor the engine behavior, or improve the aircraft’s safety during landing or taking off.

Avionics are instrumental for the advancement and improvement of airplane routes, situational awareness, and piloting aircraft under challenging weather conditions.

It is also one of the most expensive aircraft components since 60% of the manufacturing costs of modern helicopters go into avionics, while roughly 20% of the F-15E aircraft’s production budget is dedicated to these systems.

How do Avionics Work?

How do Avionics Work

Nearly all avionics systems are based in the cockpit, and they are located on the control panel pilots use during different stages of a flight. They’re usually powered by 14V or 28V DC, although airliners and military aircraft utilize alternating current systems that run on 115V AC and 400Hz.

Each system within the cockpit control panel is based on a different technology, so for instance, radars employ the technology that emits electromagnetic waves to detect other aircraft or locate potential sources of precipitation.

On the other hand, autopilots or digital flight control systems are comprised of multiple computers that gather data like the airspeed or the current atmospheric conditions and utilize it to steer the aircraft safely and steadily.

So, the exact components and technologies vary from system to system, and a pilot must be familiar with all aspects of avionics to fly an aircraft.

Types of Avionics Systems

Avionics is a broad field that spans several categories, and each category contains one or more systems that are built into an aircraft’s control panel.

These systems might vary depending on the type and the aircraft model since some planes may not have an autopilot or a traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS).

Also, contemporary aircraft utilize more advanced avionics systems than airplanes produced a few decades ago, which is why upgrading these systems might be necessary if you want to continue flying a vintage airplane.

Let’s take a look at the types of avionics systems that are featured on most aircraft.

Communication systems

As an integral part of all cockpit control panels, a communication system enables the pilot to maintain communication with all members of the crew and the passengers. The VHF or Very High Frequency that operates on the air bend between 118.0MHz and 136.975MHz is utilized to establish onboard and external communication with other aircraft and the air traffic control.

Flight displays

Flight data such as airspeed, altitude, or vertical speed can be monitored from a flight display. These systems are based on LCD or CRT display technology, and they feature a computer that processes the information acquired by barometers. Although primary flight displays are produced by different manufacturers, their layouts are usually identical.

Navigation systems

Aircraft navigation includes determining the airplane’s location while on the ground and in the air. Consequently, this avionics system utilizes satellite navigation systems such as GPS and WAAS and grounded navigation systems like VOR or LORAN.

Fuel system

The so-called Fuel Quantity Indication System (FQIS) is designed to keep track of the aircraft’s remaining fuel supply. The system gathers data via sensors installed in fuel tanks to calculate the exact amount of fuel an airplane has. On the other hand, an FCMS or fuel control and monitoring system acquire the data by controlling the pumps and valves.

Flight recorders

Recording cockpit audio is mandatory on all commercial and corporate flights. Besides the audio, the system captures flight data and stores it if an accident occurs during the flight. Unlike most avionics systems, ‘black boxes’ are commonly placed in the tail because they’re more likely to get damaged if they’re stored in the cockpit.

Weather radars, aircraft management, or collision avoidance systems are also quite common, but they’re not standard features on all aircraft.

Upgrading the Aircraft’s Cockpit

Upgrading the Aircraft’s Cockpit

Each avionics system has different components that break down or become outdated. So, to continue using an aircraft, you have to update the components of these systems regularly.

What’s more, the Federal Aviation Administration introduces new regulations every few years that improve flight safety. Complying with these regulations usually requires bringing the aircraft’s equipment up to date.

Hence, you may have to switch to an LED primary flight display or ensure that your aircraft is equipped with the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) technology.

Also, you should check if the airplane’s cockpit features an integrated or non-integrated system to figure out which components you’re going to need. All integrated systems are designed to complement each other, while non-integrated systems pair new and old components.

Even though they may seem attractive because of their price, non-integrated systems may prevent you from making the most of the newer pieces of equipment.

Managing Avionics Systems

Every part of an aircraft, including its avionics systems, requires regular maintenance. Besides keeping the hardware in good condition, you also have to make sure that the software is updated so that the avionics system it supports can continue to function properly.

Performing annual maintenance checks of an aircraft will help you detect the issues that can jeopardize your and the safety of your passengers. In addition, updating obsolete equipment will increase the aircraft’s value and enable you to keep flying it in the foreseeable future.

It is worth pointing out that managing avionics systems requires advanced knowledge of how their hardware and software work, and hiring a licensed technician will help you ensure that a particular system is repaired or upgraded correctly.

Finding an avionics system supplier that offers trade-in credit for old parts that are still functioning will reduce the cost of the system update.

The Most Important Factors to Consider When Choosing the Avionics Systems

Avionics Systems

Non-integrated avionics systems enable you to combine different pieces of equipment into a single setup, but you need to make sure that the components you choose can work together efficiently.

Most aircraft already have all the avionics systems you need to fly them safely, but you might consider equipping your airplane with an autopilot if it already doesn’t have one or a collision-avoidance system if you’re planning on flying in high-traffic areas.

Adding new avionics systems or upgrading existing ones can improve the quality of your flying experience and increase the value of your aircraft. That’s why you should search for solutions that accomplish both of these tasks.

We’ve shortlisted some of the most important factors you should consider while searching for updates on the aircraft’s avionics systems.

The Type of Aircraft You Have

Helicopters and recreational airplanes are not used in the same contexts as airliners and military aircraft.

Consequently, the avionics systems they utilize are somewhat different as there’s no need to add an advanced aviation weather display to a recreational aircraft that is used for short flights at low altitudes.

The avionics systems you choose need to be adjusted to the type of aircraft you have because you won’t be able to make the most of them if the aircraft is never used in the context for which these systems are designed.

On the other hand, the avionics systems in your aircraft should be up to date as outdated software or hardware can cause safety concerns.

The Challenges You’re Currently Facing

Probably the best way to determine if you need a new avionics system is to pinpoint the issues that are currently troubling you.

For instance, you may be ill-equipped to fly in challenging weather conditions, or the aircraft might still have a CRT primary flight display which makes it difficult to monitor and automate flight operations.

Updating the equipment can help you overcome the challenges that limit the aircraft’s performance, but you should keep in mind that the avionics system can’t radically transform the aircraft’s capabilities.

The System You Want to Upgrade

Updates of an avionics system make monitoring the fuel level or maintaining the constant altitude much easier, but you may have to update other systems to avoid compatibility issues.

Non-integrated systems allow you to choose which systems you want to upgrade, but you should also remember that installing the latest primary flight display won’t accomplish much if the aircraft’s navigation system is out of date.

That’s why you need to determine the best way to maximize the performance of a particular system without having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on upgrades of all other avionics systems.

Flying Frequency

Investing vast sums of money into updates of avionics systems might be unnecessary in case your aircraft spends the majority of its time in a hangar.

Most aircraft have avionics systems that fit the purpose for which they were designed, and with proper care, these systems can last for a long time. Even though updating these systems can improve the quality of flying an aircraft, doing so is excessive, especially if you’re not flying frequently.

Besides estimating how often you want to fly, knowing the approximate altitudes you’re planning to fly can help you determine which equipment you should get.

Consult with Different Avionics Shops

Creating a detailed list of all the components of different avionics systems you want to upgrade will give you an idea of the budget you need to complete the project.

However, avionics suppliers don’t always offer the same prices, so the components you’re interested in could be available at lower prices than those offered by the first avionics shop you stumbled upon.

In addition, some avionics retailers allow you to trade in the equipment you’re replacing if it is still functional. That’s why the shop’s representative should take a look at your aircraft and suggest the best course of action that will improve its avionics systems at a reasonable cost.

The Advantages of Avionics

Advantages of Avionics

Avionics Systems Make Flying an Airplane Easier

Although not entirely impossible, flying an aircraft without fuel monitoring, communication, or navigation systems is extremely difficult. Avionics systems enable the pilot to have a clear overview of the parameters that keep the aircraft on course and safe from other planes.

Improving the Safety of the Crew and Passengers

Landing in windy or foggy conditions, the ability to remain in constant communication with air traffic control towers, and avoiding collision with other aircraft are among the most important safety benefits of avionics systems.

The Ability to Keep up With the Latest Flight Regulations

Flight safety associations update the list of aircraft equipment, so instead of replacing the aircraft every time a new item is added to the list, you can replace the component of the system that has become obsolete.

Automation of the Measurement and Piloting Processes

All sensors included in avionics systems gather and process the data automatically so that the pilot can use the results to fly the aircraft without checking the accuracy of the data. In addition, the digital flight control systems steer the aircraft automatically and keep it at the projected course.

Highly Durable and Reliable

Avionics systems are designed to last for hundreds of flights, and they’re not prone to malfunction unless they’re physically damaged. Hence, there’s no need for frequent updates of these systems as they remain reliable for a long time.

The Disadvantages of Avionics

Understanding how Avionics Systems Work Takes Years

Maintaining an avionics system requires a high level of familiarity with its components and the parts these components are made of. Moreover, most of the software for avionics systems is written in C++, and you have to be familiar with this programming language to update the software.

High Cost

Avionics systems eat up 20% or more of the entire budget needed to build an aircraft, and even for recreational airplanes, you have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to cover the costs of updates or maintenance checks.

Top 4 Avionics System Upgrades

Most aircraft owners don’t have the know-how and the capacity to update the components of an avionics system or replace the entire system altogether.

That’s why finding a trustworthy full-service maintenance facility is your best bet if you want to introduce new features into the aircraft’s existing avionics system. In addition, reliable avionics shops will examine your aircraft and help you develop the best solution for your airplane.

Ultimately, the solution you’ll choose depends on your needs, which is why it is difficult to recommend the best avionics system upgrade.

So, we’ve selected a few solutions that can serve as a starting point in your search for components that will enhance the performance of your aircraft’s avionics systems.

Avidyne IFD 550 Premium Navigator

Avidyne IFD 550 Premium Navigator

The long list of features makes the Avidyne IFD 550 Premium navigator a great choice for commercial and recreational aircraft. The unit’s 5.7-inch touchscreen display lets you switch between a three-dimensional out-of-the-window view and the exocentric trail view.

The Terrain Awareness technology detects potential terrain hazards and issues both textual and aural warnings. The IFD550 utilizes standardized symbols to depict high-level traffic threats and all other obstacles that can cause the collision.

The unit’s vision system is based on the fully integrated NextGen MEMS – Gyro ARS system capable of sensing roll or pitch. This navigator also features WASS, VHF, SBAS, and GPS communication and navigation systems.

Garmin G500

Garmin G500

Installing the Garmin G500 flight monitor is easy because its fits spaces on control panels previously occupied by 3-inch flight instruments. In addition, the aircraft’s original airspeed indicator and other instruments can be relocated and used as backup instrumentation.

The Garmin G500 features two 6.5-inch LCDs that are installed next to each other. The primary flight display and the multifunction display provide you with a clear overview of the data you need to keep the aircraft on course and at the desired altitude.

The manufacturer offers several optional data links and sensors that enable you to add a weather radar and a collision-avoidance system to your setup.

Genesys S-TEC 3100 Digital Flight Control System

Genesys S-TEC 3100 Digital Flight Control System

Aircraft that don’t have a built-in autopilot can benefit from the Genesys S-TEC 3100 Digital Flight Control System that is compatible with single and double engine models.

You can use this DFCS throughout the entire flight with the same efficiency level because it is designed to alert the pilot as soon as it detects a potential hazard.

This autopilot is capable of restoring the aircraft’s altitude and keeping it at the projected course automatically, while you can also select the airspeed preset if you want to keep the airplane moving at a constant speed.

The S-TEC 3100 DFCS utilizes the RTCA DO – 178C software, and it weighs 2.6lbs.

JP Instruments EDM 930 Primary Engine Monitor

JP Instruments EDM 930 Primary Engine Monitor

Installing the JP Instruments EDM 930 Primary engine monitor will help you eliminate old motor gauges and free up space on the control panel. This primary flight instrument is equipped with the LeanFind technology that detects first and the last cylinders that peaked and eliminated fake peaks.

The EDM 930 monitors the oil temperature and pressure, turbine temperature, and fuel levels and enables you to keep an eye on these values on its SVGA display.

This engine monitor stores the data it acquires for 30 hours, and it lets you access the history of extreme values measured on the previous flight.

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Frequently Asked Questions about Avionics

Question: How Often Do I Have to Update the Avionics Systems?

Answer: Updating the hardware of an avionics system will enable you to use better equipment, so you should switch to new and more reliable equipment whenever you have the chance.

Software, on the other hand, requires at least annual updates, while aircraft that are used frequently should go through software updates every few months.

Question: Do Upgrades of Avionics Systems Take a Lot of Time?

Answer: Yes, they do, and failing to allocate a sufficient amount of time to upgrade the equipment is one of the most common mistakes you can make. An avionics system upgrade can take anywhere between a few weeks and an entire year, depending on the scope of the system makeover you want to perform.

Question: Can I Test the Equipment for an Avionics System Before I Buy it?

Answer: Yes, you can. In fact, it is advisable to test each piece of equipment you want to install in your aircraft before you decide to purchase it.

Question: Where can I Get a New Avionics System?

Answer: Avionics shops offer the equipment and provide installation services, and you should choose the shop that is prepared to work with you to find the best avionics solution for your aircraft.

Final Thoughts: How Understanding Avionics Can Help you Take Better Care of Your Aircraft?

The efficiency of avionics systems determines how easy it is to fly a particular plane, as these systems affect everything from your ability to monitor the engine to the communication options you have at your disposal.

The purpose for which you’re using the aircraft or the frequency and the duration of flights are some of the factors that determine which avionics systems you’re going to need. Besides, you shouldn’t update the aircraft’s built-in avionics systems before consulting a professional.

We recommend the Avidyne IFD 550 Premium navigator if you would like to improve the airplane’s navigation system, while the Garmin G500 should be your go-to choice if you need a new flight monitor.

We hope that this article has helped you understand what avionics is and how you can improve the quality of your flights. Leave a comment and share your opinions with us.

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