Blog Post

Byssokol

FlightBox Production Prototype Is In

The production prototype case arrived last week while I was out of town for a conference. It was actually a bit frustrating knowing that it was sitting on my desk at home – I’ve been looking forward to seeing it ever since we finalized the design. When I got home late last Thursday but took a few minutes to unpack, take a look at the build quality, and do a quick fitting. The result: almost perfect on the first try. Here it is assembled:

Production Prototype

The Pi fits perfectly, with the power connector and audio jack exposed. It screws to the “bosses” – the standoffs with integrated nuts – perfectly using ordinary 1/4 #4 screws. I might add a lock washer and go up to 3/8″ to avoid the screws backing out due to vibration. The SDRs and GPS fit just fine, with the GPS being locked in place by the far-end wall of the case. The SMA pigtails hold the SDRs in place and exit the case on the opposite end. The fan, which bolts to the top, also fits very cleanly.

The one adjustment that’s required is a small notch in one mounting cleat on the top. It’s just a bit too thick to slide in beside the Edimax wifi module, so it needs to be trimmed. This actually works out perfectly as it then prevents the module from backing out. The fabricator will be able to make the adjustment at no additional charge (yay!) and without it impacting the delivery date. Here are a few shots of the inside of the case:

Interior

I’m duly impressed with the quality of both the build and the material. The case looks great and the Boltaron is very strong. It fits together very tightly – to the point where it feels like a solid block, rather than a plastic box with parts inside. Perhaps that’s a cliche, but it’s also true. The one minor disappointment I have is with the color. I picked “light gray” and this is it… very light. The next option is “medium gray” which is much darker. I may offer buyers the option of light or medium. I need to order a medium gray and make sure it doesn’t have any heat issues.

A final note: several people have asked about future upgrades. Here’s a shot of the FlightBox with a development shield installed:

FlightBox With DevShield

The shield (or is it a HAT?) fits perfectly inside the case, but it will require a new top as the fan will need to be moved up to make room for the board and any components mounted on it. We will probably offer two options for the upgrade: one is just the card and it will require you to move the fan to the outside of the case; the other is a new top that makes room for the board and the fan inside.

One other detail to point out: note the holes at the end of the case right by the SDRs. Those are lined up perfectly with the MCX connectors so that you can connect an MCX cable directly with the module should you wish. Most people will prefer to use the SMA jacks – they provide a much more solid connection – in which case the holes offer a direct source of airflow over the SDRs.

Question: do you the fabricator to add holes in the bottom for permanent mounting? Let me know what you think.

Byssokol

Funded In 30 Hours

We launched our Kickstarter on Tuesday night. The campaign is running for 30 days. The goal was $10,000. I was guessing it would take at least a week to get there. We hit the $10k mark about 30 hours in. As I write this – just over two full days into the campaign – we’re at $14,625 – 146% of goal and still climbing.

Thanks to everyone who’s backed us. This is a great start to what I hope will be an amazing journey. I can’t believe that I have to wait another 28 days to know how the crowdfunding experiment turns out.

If you’re interested in owning a FlightBox, please take a look at the Kickstarter page. We’ve sold out of the early bird for dual-band but we still have a few early bird single-bands, and an unlimited number of both at the regular price.

Byssokol

NTSB, Loss of Control, and The Slow Trudge of Regulation

This week the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its annual “Most Wanted” list – a catalog of ten transportation safety improvements that they want to prioritize for the next year. For the fourth year in a row, general aviation accidents – specifically, loss of control accidents – remained on the list. (Considering that all GA accidents kill roughly 300 people each year – compared with 5,000 motorcyclists and 25,000 motorists – you would think the NTSB would find richer targets for improvement. But I digress…) I have a suggestion for them. If they want to do something about GA accidents, they should ask their friends at the FAA to radically revise the certification requirements for retrofit upgrades.

That might sound a bit odd, so let me explain my thinking.

First, we have to recognize that loss of control accidents are a people problem: Pilots who haven’t flown but a few hours in the past several years who suddenly get a bug to fly into Oshkosh. Pilots who don’t think they need to go through transition training for their shiny new airplane. Pilots who have flown the same mission so many times that they think they can make a perfect landing while texting. To put it bluntly, you can’t fix stupid – and we’re all stupid at some point. The lucky ones survive it.

So if you can’t fix people, what can you fix?

Airplanes.

Better technology is one of several factors that have all but eliminated accidents in commercial aviation. Upgrading the GA fleet with a limited amount of automation which could prevent a loss of control accident is easily within our technical grasp. The problem is not the technology, but access to that technology. The current regulations make it economically infeasible to upgrade certified airplanes. The FAA knows this, but thus far has only been able to take baby steps to remedy the situation.

Last year saw the release of Memorandum authorizing the installation of basic, stand-alone angle of attack (AoA) indicators. The installation is automatically deemed to be a minor modification thus avoiding the need for an STC. This is definitely a step in the right direction. AoA provides a much more accurate view of the airplane’s available lift. Unfortunately, as with the other baby step on digital attitude indicators, the AoA must not connect with or provide data to any other system. “Here’s some really useful data but it can only go to this little display on the glareshield.” WTF, FAA?

What we really need is inexpensive “envelope protection” – the industry term for the sort of automation that could detect and avoid an impending stall. Envelope protection requires that aircraft be retrofitted with a computer system commonly called an Electronic Flight Information System or EFIS. The EFIS processes data from various sensors – airspeed, AoA, GPS, AHRS – and sends commands to the autopilot and (some day soon) the autothrottle. In the event of an incipient stall, the EFIS would first warn the pilot, then enact a recovery procedure if the pilot does not react in time. It may sound overbearing, but it might also save your life.

At this time there are only a handful of manufacturers who offer retrofit EFIS solutions for certified airplanes. Garmin. Avidyne. Bendix King. Aspen. These system start out at $20k and can easily cost as much as $150k. It would be difficult to justify pouring $20k for an Aspen into my Grumman Tiger. I can’t imagine anyone putting that kind of money into a Cessna 150 or a Piper Cherokee. The low end of GA is effectively locked out of potentially life-saving upgrades based on cost.

The high cost of upgrades is largely based on the certification and approval requirements. Manufacturers must use design assurance and validation processes created for the air transport industry. They must follow an arcane process (DO-178C) that effectively prohibits the use of off-the-shelf open source operating systems. The certification process for something like an EFIS can easily add millions to the cost of development. All of these processes and testing requirements are mandated in the name of safety, but the result is actually the opposite: most GA aircraft are stuck in 1970s.

Compounding the frustration is the fact that an EFIS for a GA airplane does not have to cost a great deal. There are several very capable and very well tested systems available for the Experimental and LSA markets that could easily evolve to offer envelope protection. Products from Dynon, MGL, Advanced, TruTrak and even Garmin have all the necessary sensors and processing power to save lives, but are “not presently authorized” (in the words of FAA chief Michael Huerta) for use in certified GA aircraft.

If the NTSB wants to save the lives of GA pilots and passengers, it should look next door and ask the FAA to expedite the guidance changes that will allow affordable safety-enhancing technology to reach the market. It’s either that or find a way to fix stupid.

 

Byssokol

And we’re live! Now on Kickstarter.

Yesterday afternoon I received the “you’re clear for takeoff” message from the community manager at Kickstarter! As of about 5PM on Tuesday the campaign was live. We had our first FightBox backer within 15 minutes. The campaign has been live for less than a day and we’ve already reached 20% of our $10,000 minimum goal. Check out the campaign here:

Byssokol

Launching on Kickstarter… Soon

So yesterday I submitted the FlightBox campaign to Kickstarter, ending a couple of weeks of burning up all my evening and weekend time trying to put together a reasonably polished presentation that explains the basics of the product. The campaign is now in the “pending” state – which means that the Kickstarter team will be reviewing it. If all goes well, the review process should take somewhere between two and seven days. If they approve it, we go live. If not, we revise.

Photo Credit: Kickstarter

Photo Credit: Kickstarter

If you’ve ever participated in a Kickstarter campaign as a backer, it might seem like a simple process. Write up a description of the project. Record a brief video. Fill in some fields and you’re set to go. Let me tell you, it’s not as quick and easy as you imagine. I ended up rewriting the video script three times. I tried to shoot it once myself – a miserable failure. I found a local video production company called Rondevu Pictures who were able plan, shoot, and edit the video in four days. Jeff and Amy (the principals at RP) did a fantastic job with the video – far, far better than anything I could have done on my own. The only weak link in the video is me – it’s much harder to talk on camera than you might think.

The video wasn’t the only challenge. I also had to put together the “story” – the written information explaining the project – and the rewards. I spent a fair bit of time reviewing other Kickstarter campaigns to see how they structured these elements. I initially just added rewards that include an actual FlightBox. My wife suggested that I add a non-pilot item on the off-chance that there are non-pilots out there who want to back the project. I added a coffee mug. Not terribly original, but after two years of doing mugs for the pilots who fly Young Eagles, something I know how to do. We ended up with five options: the mug, a limited number of deeply discounted “early bird” specials for both the single and dual-band kits, and an unlimited number of regular-priced single and dual band kits.

All in all it probably took 40 hours of effort to put together the campaign. I think the family is glad to have me back – at least a bit more of me. So now we wait and hope that the powers-that-be at Kickstarter approve the campaign. Hopefully you’ll see another post in the next week announcing the launch. Please cross your fingers.

Cheers,

-S