Friday, October 29, 2010

iPad in the Cockpit --- Foreflight HD software

There's been considerable interest among PFC members about using iPads for better situational awareness in the cockpit. There is a surprising number of "EFB" type software for the iPad (just do a search for "aviation navigation" in iTMS). They range from simple plate/chart viewers to more full featured programs that offer everything from weather briefings, flight planning and filing, to AF/D data. One of the most full featured programs, Foreflight Mobile HD, seems to be a favorite among PFC pilots, and we took a closer look as part of the October general meeting.

While the arrival of iPad has resulted in a deluge of aviation related software, Foreflight has been around for the iPhone for a while, and is consequently more mature in terms of both usability and feature set. Foreflight Mobile started as an aviation weather focused application on the iPhone (actually, prior to the iPhone they had a Mac desktop application), and with the iPad "HD" version has added significant features that makes it very nearly a fully fledged EFB.
The main features of Foreflight HD---airport information, navigation/chart viewer, weather, flight plan filing---are organized in at the bottom of the screen.
The airports section contains information contained in the AF/D, supplemented with information from AOPA's airport directory. Airports can be searched for by identifier or city and state. For each airport page, the top half lists basic information about the airport, including elevation, pattern altitude, and the various radio frequencies.
Tap on the weather tab, and Foreflight displays latest weather information as long as the iPad has a network connection (wifi or cellular data). METAR for the airport is displayed in standard textual format, as well as as in translated form. In addition to the METAR for the airport, Foreflight will also pickup the weather from nearby airports, and display them in standard textual format in a scrolling list. (This is particularly useful if your airport doesn't report METARs.)

The weather will also display the TAF in both textual and translated form, and Wind Aloft information. Again, if your airport doesn't report TAFs, Foreflight will automatically pull the data from the closest airport. Similarly, Foreflight will pull the winds aloft information from the closest reporting station. (So in the case of our home airport KCDW, TAFs are pulled from KTEB and winds aloft come from KJFK.)

Tap on the runway tab, and Foreflight will display all pertinent information about the runway(s) at the airport. For example, at CDW, we see that runway 22 is 4,553x80, is right traffic, and has a 4 light PAPI on the right hand side.
Tap the procedures tab, and you will be greeted with a list of all government published procedures for the airport---departure, arrival and approach. Once a plate is selected for viewing, the 10 inch screen of the iPad displays full size---basically the same size as the printed version available from NACO.

And if you ever need to enlarge a portion of the screen, the standard pinch moves work as expected. The plates themselves are not geo-referenced---no little airplane indicating your current position. Personally, I find that a plus---I find geo-referenced plates more a distraction than anything else. But I'm sure many people will disagree.

Tapping the NOTAM tab gives you a full list of NOTAMs for the airport, including TFRs. The comments button on the upper left will give you a full list of the remarks in the AF/D as well as user comments (I assume collected either by AOPA or Foreflight, though that is unclear). The Taxiway button gives you the airport diagram in the IAP if one is available for the airport. And the FBO button gives you a list of FBOs on the field (and if you have a data connection) fuel prices for each FBO.

The maps section provides the navigation and basic flight planning features of Foreflight. The app allows you to download and display a full set of NACO charts---Sectionals, IFR low enroute and high enroute charts. The charts are actual scanned government charts, so if you are operating part 91, Foreflight should satisfy the requirement to carry valid charts.

The charts are geo-referenced, so if your iPad is the 3G model and includes a GPS module, your aircraft's position will show up on the charts. One nice feature is that the separate charts are stitched together, so zooming and panning work seamlessly, using the standard iPad gestures (pinch and tap-and-drag). This does mean that some weird things happen where the charts overlap (like truncated and the like), but for the most part the transitions across charts work well.
Tapping and holding on a chart will pull up a list of nearby airports, navaids and waypoints, that you can select to obtain relevant information, specify "direct to," or add to your flight plan.

Basic flight plan is entered by putting the departure airport, arrival airport and any navaids/waypoints along the way in the search field. You can also add waypoints later by tapping and holding the pink route line.  This will allow you to "rubber band" the route over to a new waypoint.  Release over a new waypoint, and the app will present you with a list of nearby airports, navaids or waypoints.
One additional route planning feature that is particularly useful is that Foreflight recognizes victor airways.  Enter a victor airway with the entry and exit VORs specified, and it will automatically pick up all the navaids/waypoints in between. Pretty handy.
The route information is added to the flight plan that is presented in the standard table form, and if you specify your aircraft (or optionally specify speed and fuel consumption in the search field) it will calculate the time enroute and fuel burn as well. Though be warned, these numbers are not corrected for wind.  If the flight plan table obstructs a part of the chart you need to see, it can be collapsed into a button.

Another useful flight planning feature is that tapping on the "ATC Routes" will pull the most recent ATC assigned routes for your departure and destination.

Once the route is specified, all sorts of graphics can be overlaid on the planned route---everything from Radar to fuel prices.

Flight plan filing and briefing:
Once you are satisfied with your overall flight plan, you can tap "File and Brief"  This will allow you to file the flight plan with DUATS and get a standard briefing for the route.

In addition to your route, Foreflight obviously requires you to enter aircraft information (favorite aircraft can be saved), various contact info, and any remarks.  Information about the route can be pulled from the map/nav screen, or can be entered manually.  If you have a previously filed flight plan, the same flight plan can be reused.

In the map/nav section, any time enroute figures are computed without correcting for wind.  So if the winds are particularly strong or you face direct head or tail winds, it might be a good idea to recalculate before filing.  Once the flight plan is filed, Foreflight will automatically send you a copy of the flight plan as well as a standard briefing for the route to your email address.  Tapping on the "Brief" button will also get you the standard briefing for the route.

One minor gripe is that if you enter a route manually, or if you use an previously used flight plan, there is no easy way to transfer that route back to the map/nav screen.

Foreflight started off as an aviation weather app, so it is not surprising that Foreflight Mobile HD does well in this regard.  In addition to automatically pulling real time METARs/TAFs for any airport you select, it gives you access to the full suite of NOAA aviation weather products---Airmets/Sigments, Turbulence, Icing, Doppler Rader, Outlook charts, prog charts, Pireps, Winds Aloft, etc.
The nice large screen of the iPad makes these charts perfectly useable (especially in landscape mode) for preflight planning purposes.

If you really want to go paper free in the cockpit, you could also used the app in place of a kneeboard to take notes, copy clearances and the like.  It includes a rudimentary "Scratchpad" feature.
Personally, I found this feature cumbersome to use. Writing with your fingertip while the iPad is mounted to an yoke mount is awkward at best.  I might feel differently if I was using a stylus with a knee-board style iPad mount. Typing using the onscreen keyboard is worse. Some things are just better done the old fashioned way.

You will also need to periodically download updated data, and even with a nice strong WiFi connection, depending on what you choose to download, this process could take quite a while. Since the iPad OS does not yet support multitasking, the downloading cannot happen in the background. Foreflight allows you to specify downloads by chart type (plates, VFR, IFR low, IFR high) and state.  So if you specify just the charts you are likely to need, this cuts down on download time considerably.  In a pinch, if you find yourself needing a chart that you hadn't downloaded, it can always be downloaded anywhere there is a network connection (including cellular data). But downloading a bunch of charts will burn through that iPad data plan pretty quickly, so this is best done over wifi.

A 3G/GPS iPad with Foreflight is a pretty interesting combination. It gives the functionality of a nearly fully fledged EFB, unprecedented information for situational awareness, for a fraction of the cost of dedicated units.  The app itself is free, and the data subscription is $75 a year. Even if you allow for the $629-$829 you would spend for an iPad, and the AT&T data costs, that's still a bargain by aviation standards.

The touch user interface is surprisingly useable in flight, especially since most of the touch targets are nice and big.  (I've used tablet solutions that require pen input, and the more robust touch interface of the iPad makes things considerably easier.)  Typing on the onscreen keyboard is a bit of an issue. Thankfully, once you have your basic flight plan entered, in-flight modifications can be done without having to pull up the keyboard. For the most part, it's possible to do whatever you need to do in-flight without having to resort to the keyboard, though sometimes keying text into the search field is the most direct way of getting the information you need.

So, what's not to like?  Well there are a number of limitations---both hardware and software---that you should be aware of.

On the hardware side (and this is more an Apple limitation than an issue with Foreflight), the built-in GPS can be quite inaccurate and occasionally loses its lock on the GPS signal.  In level flight, Foreflight typically reports accuracy at about 3m (10 feet)---pretty good. But especially in climbs or descents, the accuracy can degrade to as much as 30m (100 feet).  So this is clearly not approach quality GPS---strictly navigational situational awareness.  

Apple, in its infinite wisdom, has failed to include a serial stack to its bluetooth implementation. That means, you cannot use the any number of cheap portable bluetooth WAAS GPS receivers available on the market to improve the accuracy of the iPad GPS. If you are comfortable "jail breaking" your iPad, there are third party drivers which allow you to use these GPS receivers.

The lack of a serial stack, also means that there is currently no way to get real time weather data (through XM-WXWorx). So your weather info is limited to what you managed to grab the last time you had a network connection. For similar reasons, there is currently no TCAS interface for the iPad.  There are non-bluetooth solutions available for real time weather and traffic using ADS-B that works with the iPad, but the ADS-B rollout is still incomplete, and Foreflight does not support any such solution as of this writing.

And we've all heard of iPad "overheating" issues.  Less of a problem in high-wing planes like Cessnas, perhaps, but mounting location certainly becomes a consideration. Mounting it on the windshield using a suction mount during the summer is probably not such a good idea.

On the software side, the short comings are relatively minor.  A list of a few things that PFC members have raised as "wants":
  • Graphical display of TFRs on the main map/nav page
  • The ability to "overlay" various charts.  Right now, each map is independent.  There is no way, for example, to overlay the radar map on top of the sectional view.
  • Transfer flight route information from the filing page.
  • Wind adjusted calculations for time and fuel burn enroute.
  • Even better would be wind optimized route planning.
  • A "nearest" function.
  • Integration of the TEC route database.
  • Background data downloads.  (Though this is more of an Apple iOS issue. The iPhone version which supports multitasking allows background downloads just fine.)
But these are relatively minor issues, and certainly not deal breakers. Given the pace of development---the program is already at v. 3.7---it's a good bet that some of these features (and others) will make it into a future release.

As it stands, Foreflight Mobile HD turns the iPad into a remarkable EFB, capable of replacing stacks of paper, providing rudimentary flight planning and filing, and giving excellent pre-flight weather intelligence.  And unlike a dedicated EFB or Aviation GPS, you can use the iPad to read email, browse the web, watch movies, or whatever else you do once you get to where ever it is you are going.

(And for those who are concerned about the iPad flaking out, or generally mistrust electronic devices, the Foreflight Mobile subscription includes data for a second device as well. So you could carry basically the same information on your iPhone/iPod-Touch as backup.  Heck, you could even get a second iPad for backup---it would still be cheaper than most aviation EFB solutions.)

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