ADS-B Users Gather Round, As the Means They Are a Changing

Weather + Position + Attitude… Keeping it all in check with ADS-B.

SkyVision Xtreme Portable, in its Xth and final iteration, was a convenient, hard-shell black briefcase of spy grade avionics that could receive and display aviation traffic and weather. More than that, SkyVision Xtreme Portable was the first demonstrable product in a complicated scheme to force general aviation’s adoption of ADS-B. Released in 2013, though conceived in 2010, the portable device offered ADS-B In & Out with little to no burden of installation.

SkyVision Xtreme Portable
SkyVision Xtreme Portable ADS-B In & Out System

By FAA mandate, aircraft operators are now (by 2020) obligated to equip with ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast). Essentially, ADS-B is an upgrade to the commonplace transponder, or “squawk” box, that it now circumvents. SkyVision’s portable gave stealthy first adopters a means to participate in the scheme.

The SkyVision Xtreme Portable concept was simple: Allow pilots to bring their weather and traffic system to the airplane with them; and it worked. Others quickly followed with compact portable devices offering a subset of capabilities. NavWorx offered WxBox, a hot selling weather-only unit, and PADS-B, an “In & Out” device that included traffic and position reporting. Appareo released its Stratus line, while Garmin introduced its GDL receivers. Everyone suddenly wanted “In.”

NavWorx WxBox
WxBox ADS-B weather receiver from NavWorx.
NavWorx PADS-B
PADS-B from NavWorx, full ADS-B In & Out with a portable device.

A common refrain among pilots fortunate enough to fly with traffic warning systems is that they suddenly feel vulnerable in aircraft without them.

Dave Hirschman, AOPA Pilot, April 2013

SkyVision Xtreme Portable was revolutionary, taking full advantage of what ADS-B had to offer. First, it was a step up from old-school radar traffic devices. Satellite-derived ADS-B sees traffic all the way to the ground when radar cannot. The Xtreme system also included graphical weather display, GPS derived position information, and an attitude heading reference system. Most importantly, the Xtreme Portable provided full ADS-B In & Out capability, the latter a requirement of the FAA mandate. SkyVision Xtreme arrived well in advance of the pending FAA 2020 deadline, appealing to early adopters and stoking developers.

Inside the SkyVision Xtreme Portable was an ADS-B transceiver (UAT) from NavWorx. The briefcase was a self-contained, complete system and its only physical connection was a 12/24-Volt power plug. An internal battery supplied backup power. A pair of antennas tethered from the unit. On an iPad, or other tablet device, the data was displayed, transmitted via Wi-Fi. As aircraft came into view—before they could be seen through the windscreen—each was shown with distance, relative height, heading, speed, climb/descent trend, aircraft type and call sign (if available). The device was smart and advanced. It set a standard others would copy.

SkyVision Xtreme on iPad
SkyVision Xtreme traffic and weather displayed on an iPad.

How rapidly development occurs. Nearly every existing avionics manufacturer, and a surge of newcomers, produced, bought, or sought compatible products with the new ADS-B standard. The rush was on. With both open source content and competitive efforts at work, ADS-B adoption was indeed a race. Big investment, from players like Garmin, aimed to meddle with the standard. A chary FAA frequently conspired. Programmers and electronics entrepreneurs concocted ideas and seized opportunities. The community of aviators welcomed a supply of creative new products.

Today, the innovation continues. There’s Stratus 3, the nexus of the SkyVision concept several years into its product life cycle. It comes from marketeers of aircraft transponders, electronic flight bags, and an array of technology innovations. Simple to use, portable, free benefits (such as weather, traffic, GPS navigation), works on almost any device, and compatible with all the top apps, Stratus is now the commodity for ADS-B In, priced at around $700.

There’s also FlightBox, a palm-sized cuboid sprouting two antennas with, “All the features of the Stratus 2S at 1/4 the price.” It’s an open source artifact of ADS-B development. With electronics available off-the-shelf, its users are emphatically embracing it. In the spirit of SkyVision and NavWorx affordability, FlightBox represents a culmination of ADS-B In development, setting one back a mere $239.

There’s even a DIY option with Stratux, an open source software adaptation of ADS-B development that can be used with widely available component parts. For example, one can get a 3D printed enclosure, add the electronics, and drive it with Stratux. The software is free and public forums actively support it. Stratux is the bridge from the world experimental aircraft to commercial ADS-B development.

A commodity in situ, culmination at play, and more bridges still ahead, ADS-B technology will continue to advance. We are seeing a glimpse of this at uAvionix, a company that integrates ADS-B into wingtip nav lights/strobes and tail beacons. These ultracompact and simple to install turnkey solutions are just the beginning.

SkyBeacon from uAvionix has a street price of around $1,800; it is “Out” only, hence no need for a display, and requires a transponder. A typical ADS-B transponder runs $3,000. By contrast, the latest touchscreen navigator from Garmin costs five G and comes with lots of extras; for an additional $2,700 you get ADS-B.

What’s next? ADS-B microchips will one day be implanted under the aircraft skin. GPS will get “smart,” interrogating and resolving issues before pilots are even aware of the anomaly. Aircraft surveillance under ADS-B will continue to be pervasive for the sake of safety. The incentive of free weather and traffic will pale in comparison to the advantages of what future ADS-B, or perhaps its successor, will bring.

Note: The legacy SkyVision Xtreme is still available today with Skyvision Xtreme Moving Map Software employing the Stratux receiver and an 8-inch tablet display.