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AHRS Board Now In Stock

After rather a longer wait than we had hoped, we now have our AHRS / GPS / Baro sensor boards back in stock. For those who already have a FlightBox, we’re offering upgrade kits for $160. For those who have not yet purchased a FlightBox, you can add the AHRS components to any Dual Band or Single Band kit for $150. If you would prefer we do the installation, we offer upgrade services for $35.

For more information on AHRS, please see the AHRS page. To order, please see the web store.

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Introducing FlightBox Pro

FlightBox Pro – FAA Approved For Permanent Installation

I’m extremely pleased to announce that Open Flight Solutions has received FAA approval for FlightBox Pro, a new version of our FlightBox ADS-B / GPS / AHRS system which can be permanently installed in certified aircraft as a minor alteration. FlightBox Pro, priced at $675, provides weather, traffic, WAAS GPS, barometric altitude, G-force, and advisory attitude data to applications running on tablets, smartphones, and portable navigators. Coupled with a tablet and a mount, FlightBox Pro serves as the core of a powerful yet inexpensive MFD.

FAA approval means that FlightBox Pro can be installed permanently: mounted to the airframe; wired to the avionics buss; connected to external ADS-B and GPS antennas. A permanently installed system is more convenient, reduces clutter in the cockpit, improves ADS-B and GPS reception, and provides more accurate AHRS and G-meter functionality. Installation can be done by any licensed A&P mechanic or repair station. The process typically takes one to two hours – less if you have existing antennas. The FAA approval permits the installation of FlightBox Pro on any Part 23 / CAR3 airplane and any Part 27 or Part 29 rotorcraft. The installation is deemed to be a minor alteration under most circumstances, requiring only a logbook entry.

FlightBox Pro is the first multifunction system to be approved under the FAA’s NORSEE policy. NORSEE stands for “Non-Required Safety-Enhancing Equipment”. The policy was created in 2015 as a simplified means of reviewing and authorizing products which have the potential to make flying safer. NORSEE is one of several efforts by the FAA to improve the safety of the legacy fleet. Other NORSEE-approved products include a line of iPad and iPhone mounts from Guardian Avionics – great for creating that MFD.

FlightBox Pro is available for pre-order today and is expected to ship in April. The $675 package includes the FlightBox Pro, a dash-mount GPS antenna, cabin-mount 1090 and 978 MHz ADS-B antennas, SMA extension cables and an antenna mount bracket. We are also offering a number of adapters for those who want to connect their FlightBox Pro to external antennas that use BNC, TNCF, and other connector styles. Avionics shops and many A&Ps should be able to fabricate appropriate connections.

Open Flight Solutions does not currently plan to sell external antennas. You can use inexpensive transponder / DME antennas (typically $25 – $35 each) for both ADS-B bands. Aviation GPS antennas are generally quite a bit more expensive, but you can often find used antennas left over from upgrades at a reasonable price. We tested FlightBox Pro using an AeroAntenna AT575-9 that had been connected to an Apollo GPS — it worked flawlessly.

For those who’s A&P or avionics shop demand proof, here’s a link to the approval letter from the FAA.

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FlightBox On AOPA Live This Week

AOPA senior editor Ian Twombly gave FlightBox a test drive. Jump to 6:00 for the story:

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AHRS Side-By-Side Test

The FlightBox AHRS isn’t quite as smooth as the G1000, but given the $80,000 difference in price I’m not going to complain.

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AHRS In Action Video

Pardon the poor video work, but it’s actually rather difficult to fly and film at the same time. This brief clip shows the new AHRS board in action. It’s a production board with beta software. The pitch is dead-on. Roll is off a bit, because the FlightBox was sitting in the seat beside me rather than mounted to a level surface. I’ll try to get a better video with a solid mounting next time the weather clear up here.

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AHRS / GPS / Baro Board Available For Pre-Order

Since we launched FlightBox last January, the most frequent request – by far – has been to add AHRS capabilities. We started working on a design as soon as we dug out from under the avalanche of Kickstarter orders in March. After nine months of designing, rAHRS Boarde-designing, refactoring and prototyping I am happy to announce that now have a final design. We will begin taking pre-orders on Monday, November 28 (“Cyber Monday”) and expect to deliver in January.

The board includes a number of sensors:

  • InvenSense MPU-9250 IMU – a multifunction sensor that includes a 3-axis accelerometer, 3-axis gyroscope, and 3-axis magnetometer. The MPU-9250 provides inertial and magnetic data to the AHRS algorithm.
  • Bosh BMP-280 Barometric Pressure Sensor – a high-precision digital altimeter.
  • u-Blox MAX-M8 GNSS Receiver – a WAAS GPS receiver with a 10 Hz update rate, an onboard high-gain antenna, and support for remote powered antennas.

The data provided by these sensors will allow FlightBox to create an accurate estimate of your aircraft’s attitude, position, and cabin altitude. The attitude data can be used to drive attitude and synthetic vision displays on compatible1 EFB applications. The barometric sensor provides accurate cabin altitude – typically within 25′ of barometric altitude in unpressurized aircraft. The GPS – our first internal GPS since we dropped the VK-172 in May – assists in the attitude solution and provides highly accurate position information.

The board also includes a set of status LEDs and a fan speed controller. The LEDs show power status, GPS lock status, and ADS-B reception status. The fan controller adjusts fan speed based on system temperature, saving battery power.

The new board is built as a “shield” for the Raspberry Pi computer. It attaches directly to the 40-pin option header on the Pi, making installation very easy. As we’ve done for our other accessories, we will publish a video that takes you through the installation process step-by-step.

FlightBox With Replacement Top

We will be offering the new board in two configurations. For FlightBox owners we will have a complete upgrade kit that includes the board, a new top, and an new fan. Stratux DIY users (who are not using a FlightBox case) will be able to order just the board. The complete FlightBox upgrade kit will sell for $160. The board-only kit will sell for $140.

AHRS requires a combination of hardware and software. The hardware on the new board will require a FlightBox update which we will release when the boards start shipping in January. The update will also include the serial output feature and an automatic flight logging feature.

For those who would prefer to leave the installation and the update to the professionals, we will be offering an update / upgrade service for an additional $25. Send in your existing FlightBox and we will send it back with the AHRS board, new top and updated firmware.

1. The FlightBox attitude feature is not currently compatible with ForeFlight.

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Preview Available: Serial Output for EFIS, MFD

USB-to-RS232 Adapter

One of the top three requests I’ve received since launching FlightBox is a way to send the ADS-B data to an EFIS or MFD. FlightBox usually delivers ADS-B and (optionally) GPS data to a display system over Wifi. This works very well for tablets and newer portable navigators, but there are many in-panel displays that do not have a Wifi interface. Most of these use the RS-232 serial standard instead. To get the data from FlightBox to an RS-232 port on an EFIS we use a USB-to-serial converter. This posed a bit more of a challenge than you might imagine, as most GPS devices also use a USB-to-serial converter.

If a GPS and the RS-232 output adapter both use the same USB-to-serial chip, they show up in the Raspberry Pi as something like “usb_serial1” and “usb_serial2”. To make matters more challenging, they don’t always get the same assignment – whichever device initializes first becomes “1” and the next becomes “2”. This leads the system thinking the GPS is disconnected or broken while pumping ADS-B data at it, instead of the display system. Not good.

To solve this, we found a USB-to-serial adapter that allows us to program a custom “name” for each device. (We do something similar to the radio modules to keep the 1090 and 978 functions associated with the correct module.) We currently have a limited number (as in, 8) of these adapters in stock. More are on the way. I’ve not added them to the default catalog on the web store, but you can find them here.

Each kit comes with the 6′ adapter cable (ends in bare wires), a 6″ USB pigtail cable, and a wiring guide. The adapter has six wires, but only two – transmit and ground – are required for most ADS-B In applications. The output from the adapter uses the RS-232 protocol and should not be connected to “TTL serial” inputs which use a different voltage range. (Most if not all avionics use RS-232, but check before hooking something up.)

The system defaults to a baud rate of 38,400 bps, 8 data bits, one stop bit, and no parity. At this point the data bits, stop bit, and parity are fixed, but we have included a field in the Settings tab of the web application to adjust the baud rate. Some hardware, including the iFly GPS systems, requires the baud rate be adjusted up to 115,200 bps.

Thus far, the serial output has been successfully tested with systems from GRT (big thanks to Greg Toman), iFly GPS (big thanks to Shane Woodson), and a Chelton MFD. FlightBox uses the industry standard GDL-90 format, which means that it should work with many other EFIS and MFDs.

Installation – FlightBox Side

There is one potential issue with installing the serial output. It uses the top-center USB port on the Raspberry Pi – the same port we have been using for the GPS. In many cases that won’t be a problem – if you’re using the FlightBox in an aircraft with an EFIS or MFD, you probably don’t need a GPS. In some cases, however, users will want both. If you need to have both the serial output and the GPS connected, you have two options – you can use an external USB hub or you can make some modifications to your FlightBox case. (If you have an early FlightBox unit with a Raspberry Pi 2 and a USB Wifi module you will need to use the USB hub option.)

The USB hub option is the least invasive but costs a bit ($10 – $15) and adds another potential point of failure. You can use a simple non-powered hub as neither the GPS nor the RS-232 adapter draws any appreciable current. Amazon offers a number of basic two-port USB hubs that should work. I’ve ordered this one and will be trying it out.

The case modification procedure requires you remove one of the three cleats that hold the top on (the other two do a more than adequate job) and make a small incision in the end of the case (opposite the top-right USB port) to allow another USB cable to exit the box. Needless to say, you do this at your own risk.

Installation – Display Side

The RS-232 cable ends in six bare wires. The only two that matter for ADS-B are the black ground wire and the orange transmit line, both of which will need to be connected to pins on your display system. Unfortunately, there is no universal standard for serial avionics connections, so you will need to consult your avionics system’s manual to determine the type of connector you need. Many use the classic “DB-9” input, while others use DB-15, DB-25, and other, more arcane connectors. The display-side connection will require either crimping or soldering, depending on the connector style.

The iFly 700 uses – wait for it – USB, so you will need a USB to RS-232 adapter. Yes, that’s right, you’ll have two RS-232 adapters back-to-back. (No, you cannot just use a male-USB-to-male-USB cable. Won’t work.)

Installation – Beta Update / Image

If you are interested in trying out the serial output feature, you’ll need to order a cable and to download and install either the beta image or the beta update. The image is useful if you’re technically inclined and have an extra micro SD card available. Follow the imaging instructions here to image your card.

The update is simpler to install, as you simply use the update feature of the Web UI, but may cause issues including bricking your system. We’ve done SOME testing, installing the update on working 1.0r1 systems. We’ve not yet been through the process of testing it on every released build (0.8r2, 0.8r3, 0.8r3a) or every hardware configuration (Pi 2 with USB Wifi module) so your mileage may vary. If something goes wrong, simply re-image with either the beta image or 1.0r1.

Feedback

The reason we’re releasing this beta is to gather feedback from users. If you install the new version and have questions or problems, please post something on our Community Support Forum.

Serial Input?

One interesting side effect of adding serial output is that it comes with serial input. If your experimental avionics package has an output for something useful – engine data, air data, AHRS data, etc., it would be relatively simple to use the available RX line on the serial adapter to feed that information into the FlightBox and broadcast it over Wifi to tablets, etc. Anyone have any suggestions or ideas for what we might be able to do with the serial input?

NOTICE: FlightBox is not approved for permanent installation in type certificated aircraft. Integrating with an MFD or other certified panel mount display system may invalidate the airworthiness of your aircraft. Use caution. Talk with your avionics shop or technician. Do not break the law!

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Is The FAA’s TIS-B Policy Killing Pilots?

I hate to use a click-bait headline like that, but the recent news of yet another GA mid-air collision has me angry. Last summer a Cessna 150 and an F-16 collided near Monck’s Corner, South Carolina, killing the pilot and passenger in the Cessna. Two weeks ago a Cessna Caravan and a Piper cub collided in Alaska. Last week another mid-air, this time in Georgia, left three dead. Mid-air collisions are relatively rare but invariably draw the attention and condemnation of the press – something GA definitely does not need.

The recent spate of articles made much of the fact that these accidents occurred at or near “uncontrolled” airports. As pilots we all understand that “uncontrolled” does not mean “out-of-control” or “free-for-all.” The traffic rules and standard practices usually make operation at an uncontrolled airport quite safe. The general public does not understand this. Perhaps more than any other type of accident, mid-air collisions instill a fear of general aviation in the minds of the non-flying electorate. Two pilots failed to maintain visual separation. Two planes were destroyed. Multiple lives were lost. It’s not a pretty picture.

Sadly, many (most?) of these accidents could be avoided with an inexpensive traffic receiver and a comprehensive feed of local traffic. The FAA has the data. ATC radar installations all across the country collect, digitize, and forward a constant stream of real-time traffic. The information is passed to ADS-B ground towers which uplink it as TIS-B (traffic information service – broadcast). This sounds like a potential solution to the problem and it is – if your aircraft is equipped with ADS-B Out. If not, you get either a partial picture (if someone nearby has ADS-B Out) or nothing at all.

This is wrong. It verges on criminal. The FAA’s mandate is aviation safety. The only reason they exist is to make aviation safer. So why don’t they simply broadcast a comprehensive stream of traffic data? Because their current policy is to use TIS-B as a bonus or “carrot” for those who chose to equip with ADS-B Out before the 2020 deadline. This policy may very well be killing pilots, passengers, and bystanders.

I don’t know if any of the pilots involved in the recent mid-airs were using an EFB application, but given how pervasive they have become it is entirely possible. Had any of them been receiving traffic updates it is possible – even likely – that they would have detected and avoided the other aircraft. Yes, they may have been too low to have been receiving ADS-B. Yes, they may have been too low to be visible to any ATC radar. However, in the F-16/C-150 crash, both aircraft were visible to ATC and within 21 nautical miles of an ADS-B ground station making it very likely that they would have had coverage.

The change is apparently not simply a matter of flipping a switch. Originally there was some concern that the amount of data involved in comprehensive traffic broadcast could overwhelm the ADS-B network, compromising safety. According to a source at AOPA, research by an FAA / industry task force debunked this concern. The group reviewed the technical challenges involved and found that uplinking all traffic visible to ATC would not overload the available bandwidth, nor would it place an impossible burden on the towers or the network infrastructure that connects them. The change would require software be revised to provide coverage zones for the towers rather than coverage “pucks” for client aircraft.

If you happen to belong to any of the “alphabet” organizations – AOPA, EAA, NBAA, etc. – please contact their advocacy team and demand that they make opening TIS-B a priority. There is no reason for mid-air collisions to happen in 2016.

Contacts

EAA – Sean Elliott – VP of Advocacy & Safety: Email Now

AOPA – Jim Coon – Senior VP of Government Affairs and Advocacy: Email Now

NBAA – Dick Doubrava – Vice President, Government Affairs: Email Now

NBAA – Christa Fornarotto – Vice President, Government Affairs: Email Now

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v1.0 Image File Now Available

The system image file linked from the Re-Imaging Tutorial is now updated to include v1.0r1 of the Stratux software. The image has been tested on both Raspberry Pi 2 and Raspberry Pi 3 systems with positive results.

Note: Users only need to re-image their data card if they experience difficulties with an update or receive error notices indicating that the Linux image on their system is out of date.

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Firmware Version 1.0 Now Available

For the past several months FlightBox has been shipping with a copy of Stratux v0.8r2. After several months of testing we’re happy to announce that an update to Stratux v1.0r1 is now available. 1.0 fixes a number of minor issues. Updates to the software include:

  • Fixed erroneous ownship altitude values
  • Fixed occasional crashes caused by malformed ADS-B data
  • Enhanced logging / debugging tools
  • Updated web interface with traffic distance / heading
  • Added ownship traffic suppression (beta)
  • Added tail number decoding for N and C registered aircraft
  • Performance improvements
  • Stability improvements

All together these make for a more stable and powerful system. The Stratux community has been using v1.0 since mid-July with no major issues reported. I’ve put about 20 flight hours and over 500 bench hours on the FlightBox 1.0 build with no complaints.

Please see the Update Tutorial page for a link to the update file and for installation instructions. (Or just use our new iOS app to install the update.)

As always, a big thank you to Chris Young and the Stratux community for all the work that went into 1.0!

Warning! Check the update file name!

When we launched the last update a few months ago we had a number of users complain that after installing the update their system stopped working – the dreaded “bricking”. To get everything back up and running they had to re-image the SD card (or send it in for us to re-image). It took a bit of digging but I finally figured out what was happening.

When you download the firmware file you wind up with something that looks like this:

update-stratux-flightbox-v0.8r2a-db130aab76.sh

If you happen to download it again, you wind up with this:

update-stratux-flightbox-v0.8r2a-db130aab76 (1).sh

It’s exactly the same file, but the download manager adds ” (1)” to the file name. The space you see between the end of the build ID and the open parenthesis is the culprit: it causes the installation to fail – and it also causes the delete command that should remove the .sh file from completing. So every time the system boots up it finds the update file, tries to apply it, fails, and reboots. Instant “bricked” system.

If you update manually (i.e. not using the new iOS app) be absolutely certain that the filename does not have a space in it. If it does, you will wind up bricking your system and will need to re-image, send your card in for update ($3), or order a new card from the web store ($13).

A fix that eliminates this potential pitfall will be included in (embrace the irony…) an upcoming update.