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, re-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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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:
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!
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:
If you happen to download it again, you wind up with this:
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.
When we launched on Kickstarter back in February we declared the beginning of a Kit Avionics Revolution. Since then we’ve sold over 1200 FlightBox kits to pilots all over the world. In so doing we’ve learned a lot about ADS-B and about the aviation market. The Kit Avionics Revolution has been a huge success for us, but one of the more important things we’ve discovered is the range of technical aptitudes and interests in the flying community. While many pilots relish the opportunity to get hands-on with their systems, others prefer something a bit more finished.
In order to serve those who just want to buy and fly, we’re pleased to announce the availability of the FlightBox FB1X – a fully assembled and tested dual-band ADS-B receiver with all the features of the original FlightBox kit. The assembled version includes high-gain antennas, a 12v/24v USB power adapter, and a one year warranty. It is compatible with all of our add-on products: the remote GPS, remote antenna kit, friction mount, battery, etc.
We’ve know that we were missing out on a segment of the market for some time. I’m very proud to say that we took our time and did this right. The FB1X is fully FCC certified. It has been tested over the course of more than 30 flight hours and under a wide range of conditions. It ships with version 1.0r1 of the Stratux software (updates for existing FlightBox systems will be release shortly).
The list price for the assembled FlightBox dual band receiver is $325. To celebrate the launch of our first turnkey product we are offering a $25 discount through the end of October. Our goal is to be the value leader in ADS-B, and at $300, I think we’re hitting the mark.
If you have any pilot friends who have shied away from FlightBox due to the “DIY” nature of the kit, please let them know that we’re now ready for them. They can order the FlightBox FB1X from our web store today.
When we launched FlightBox we consciously decided to go with a simplified design that did not include an internal battery. Batteries add weight, complexity, and liability to any product. By offering FlightBox with a standard 5v USB power input, we gave our users the option of using a cigarette lighter adapter, a battery, a solar charger or any other power source that could provide 2 amps at 5v.
After six months I still think this was the right choice: there are many FlightBox users who have found the flexibility to be extremely useful. Some users withe experimental aircraft have installed USB transformers. Most users who own certificated aircraft use a cigarette lighter adapter. CFIs who move from aircraft to aircraft throughout the day love the option of simply swapping batteries when needed.
But… the most common issue we run into is power. Many of the tech support calls and emails we field each week come down to inadequate power. After talking with a group of users at our booth in Oshkosh, it became abundantly clear that providing a number of trusted, reliable option for power was important. As a result we immediately added a USB cigarette lighter adapter to our catalog. The search for a battery took a bit longer.
Fortunately, it turns out that the need for a good source of portable USB power is not unique to FlightBox. As it turns out, the popular Pokemon Go game has made backup power for mobile phones practically a requirement. An old friend here in the KC area decided to capitalize on the demand for high quality batteries and ordered a large batch built to spec by a reputable manufacturer overseas. (At this point only Tesla is building lithium battery systems here in the States.) He gave me a sample to test and after a few weeks of abuse I am happy to announce that we now offer a battery.
The USB packs that we are selling are rated at 10,000 mAh which typically provide more than five hours of flight time on a full charge. (I’ve had the test unit last for 7.5 hours, but that was under cool, comfortable lab conditions.) They’re slim and weigh in at only 0.45 pounds. Most importantly, they consistently deliver up to 2.1 amps – more than enough power for a FlightBox. We’re offering them for $35 on the web store. They will come with a 6-inch USB cable and a set of velcro dots to (optionally) attach the battery to the FlightBox.
Note the supplies are limited: the Pokemon craze took up a big chunk of the supply, so we only have 50 in stock at the moment. More are on the way and should be here in September.
The last time I posted anything we had just finished loading up the giant rental van for our long journey north to Oshkosh and AirVenture 2016. A huge thank-you to everyone who stopped by the booth. We had a very successful week in Wisconsin. We talked with hundreds of pilots from all over the world. Across the course of the week we sold more than 100 FlightBox systems on-site, and nearly as many over the web.
Oshkosh was also a great chance to catch up with our EFB partners. It is amazing how many innovative developers are working to make aviation safer using consumer electronics platforms. Between the iPad aviation revolution and the recent release of “approved but not certified” products from Dynon and Garmin’s Team X, the future is looking brighter than ever. I managed to talk with a number of other vendors from the experimental avionics market and several of them have already launched projects to seek FAA approval for their products. I expect that AirVenture 2017 will host the launch of a number of newly approved, affordable systems including navigators and autopilots.
As anyone who has ever been to an Oshkosh (or, as the locals call it, to an “EAA”) knows, it’s absolutely huge. It takes up the entirety of Wittman Regional Airport and spills out into both the town of Oshkosh and the neighboring lake Winnebago. According to EAA officials, more than 10,000 aircraft and over half a million visitors attended this year’s event. We spent most of the time in our booth, but did make it out to see a few events, including an awesome night air show. If you’ve never been you owe it to yourself to go – it truly is a spectacle no pilot should miss.
I have to thank my wife Amy, my daughter Katie, and my friend Larry for hours of tireless work, and for making the long drive into the north woods. I also owe a huge thank-you to Bryan Heitman of Aerovie for hosting us. It was an amazing opportunity and we’re already looking forward to next year’s show.
A bit over three months ago we exhibited at Sun-N-Fun with DroidEFB, one of our application partners. The show was a huge success and resulted in over 250 orders over the next month. However, one of the most common refrains we heard was, “If you had them for sale here, I would buy one!”. Well, we heard you.
We’re showing up to Oshkosh with nearly 400 dual-band FlightBox kits plus remote antenna kits, friction mounts, and remote GPS units. We’re exhibiting with Aerovie, another application partner. You can find us in Hangar C, Booth 3078.
Sun-N-Fun was a solo gig for me, which was something of a challenge. This time the whole team will be at the show, plus we have a number of volunteers who will be joining us. We’re offering a new service as part of the Oshkosh experience. The new offer – called “20 Minutes To Taxi” – is a factory assisted build: you can borrow our tools and work with one of our expert builders to get your FlightBox system assembled, tested, and ready – usually in less than 20 minutes.
We will be exhibiting all week, so if you’re able to make it up to the big show please stop in and introduce yourself.
At least once a week somebody sends me an email about an ADS-B traffic target that suddenly appeared on their EFB app, often just a hundred feet above or below, and less than half a mile behind. The reporter is never able to spot the target, which appears to doggedly follow them for a few minutes before disappearing. No, this is not a UFO or a new stealth drone. It’s just an annoying (and occasionally panic-inducing) artifact of the way ADS-B works.
If you’re being chased by ghosts, don’t worry – you’re not alone. It’s not an issue that’s specific to FlightBox or to whatever EFB app you’re using. Every ADS-B In system occasionally displays a ghost, even for those of us equipped with ADS-B Out. Here’s what appears to be happening:
You’re receiving ADS-B traffic data from the FAA ground towers. Those towers are receiving data from secondary surveillance radar. The radar data is collected at various center and terminal radar sites and sent to the towers for processing and broadcast. The software in the towers use the “hockey puck” algorithm to determine what traffic targets get broadcast.
Apparently, the delay between the time the radar site picks up a target and the time it arrives in your cockpit can vary quite a bit. Most of the time your EFB is able to determine which of the various targets it’s receiving is your aircraft (often referred to as “ownship”) which it filters out. But if the latency (time lag in delivery) is too great, the software can’t be absolutely sure if a given target is really “you” so, so it displays it – frequently with a traffic conflict warning.
Theoretically, this shouldn’t happen with aircraft that are equipped with ADS-B Out. Each Out-equipped aircraft broadcasts a unique identifier (ICAO code) which should allow both the towers and your local software to filter it out, preventing ghosts. But even the towers sometimes can’t correlate between your radar target and your position as received directly from your ADS-B Out transmissions. They fall victim to the same latency-induced issues that plague your EFB. Rather than take a chance on miss-reporting a conflict, they rebroadcast the radar data as an anonymous target which suddenly appears on your screen as a ghost.
The ghost effect appears to be worse when you’re in an area covered by multiple radars and multiple ADS-B towers. In talking with ADS-B experts, it does not sound like there’s any obvious fix for this. Lower latency links between the radar sites and the ADS-B towers can help, but even that’s not a guaranteed fix. As we get closer to 2020 and more aircraft are equipped with ADS-B Out, it should get better. Until then, don’t panic every time a mysterious traffic target appears on your screen. But don’t ignore it, either – that way lies midair ugliness.