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How to Select an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB)

Abstract

This article is meant to assist the reader with selection criteria in purchasing an Electronic Flight Bag to replace paper charts in the cockpit for Class 1 EFB used in Part 91 operations.

It addresses four key issues: legality, usability, complexity (benefits/drawbacks), and costs. 

The article provides additional reference material designed to assist the reader in their selection and to provide a basis for the Pilot-in-Command to make an informed decision on the replacement of paper charts.

Introduction

Replacing paper charts with an electronic solution is the “holy grail” of General Aviation. Cockpit space and resources are limited and their management is critical to successful flights.

In 2002, Major Fizsimmons of the USAFR wrote a very comprehensive paper on the usage of EFB’s in the Modern Cockpit. He cites the benefits and drawbacks of using technology to replace paper charts.

I spent Oshkosh 2010 working in a booth for Essential Flight Technology selling EFB solutions. The common theme presented throughout the show is the desire to replace paper charts in the cockpit with a low cost technology solution. From that experience and research, I am presenting key issues that a Part 91 pilot can use for selecting a replacement for paper charts in the cockpit for General Aviation.

EFB Defined

Electronic Flight Bag is defined as a physical device that contains an electronic representation of printed documentation that pilots must have when they fly.  An electronic version of printed documentation provides many advantages. The primary advantages are weight reduction, indexing, and time reduction for updates.  The primary disadvantages are complexity, cost and legal requirements. Many articles cite that an EFB can improve situation awareness.  They also cite the greatest issue is human factors.

What to Consider?

In my research we break down EFBs into 3 categories:

  1. A poor man’s G1000,
  2. A “it does everything” solution,
  3. A point solution “It does Approach Plates, Just charts, or various combinations.

Next we break aircraft into three basic types:

  1. High Wing,
  2. Low Wing,
  3. Aircraft with Class Canopies.

Each of these aircraft types have different issues when selecting EFBs that contain GPS devices and what kind of screen will work.  Finally we consider the following key issues with the actual EFB:

  1. Legality,
  2. Usability/Fly-ability,
  3. Complexity ,
  4. Cost Initial/Subscription.

If my math is correct that gives us about 36 permutations of choices before we even start evaluating the actual product.

How to Start?

Any decision must have a starting point. As an engineer we are trained to do a “trade study” before selecting products for purchase. A trade study evaluates what criteria are used for purchase and what is most important. It uses a weighted calculation that is agnostic to platform and product.  So I will quote Maslow's Maxim, "When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail.". There are many variations to this maxim but the idea is that if you own a tablet PC you only look at products that run on it vice versa if you want an iPAD you find programs that work on it.

The idea in the trade study is to define what you want before you pick the product or the platform. There are two basic starting points, what you want and what you can spend. For instance, I used to purchase AirCharts for $197/year and plates when I needed them at about $7/each. I purchased about 10 plate books a year.  So that was about $267/yr in paper that I could spend on an EFB solution. I also spent $600/yr in weather subscriptions and $450/yr in database update for my Garmin 480W. Since I fly a Mooney 231/262, I wanted less weight and not to spend more than I already was. So I started with budget; $267/year.

So to the point of starting we need to answer the following questions:

  1. What do you already own in the cockpit?
  2. What do you want from your EFB solution?
  3. What is the budget?

Let’s evaluate a typical IFR aircraft cockpit. It probably contains a panel mount GPS (Garmin 430/480/530/KLN90/KLN94), a portable GPS like a Garmin 396/496 or Lowrance c600, 2 Radios at least one with an ILS and perhaps an ADF or DME. If the GPS is a 396/496 among others then weather is probably being displayed.  More expensive airplanes may contain an MFD like a GMX 200 or King unit, but that is the top 20% and probably not average.

Next we can evaluate a typical pilot. He probably has a PC/MAC computer at home for checking weather on AOPA, FLTPLAN.COM, Duats or one of the many other sites. He purchases about $250-$300 a year in paper subscriptions and potentially pays over a $1000/yr in subscriptions.

Gap Analysis

What is missing or what is the advantage of the EFB? The easiest thing to notice missing is unless you have a GNS480, MX20, or G1000 you don’t have Victor Airways depicted. That’s a useful issue when flying IFR and even planning VFR long cross countries.  The next advantage an EFB can present is the ability to have all of the required documentation like manuals, AFMs, checklists handy for the pilot. After that we replace our paper with electronic representation and gain the benefit of indexes and weight reduction with improved situational awareness.

The First Decision

The first decision is whether or not we want to remove all paper charts/products from the cockpit. If we do then we must consider the legality of doing so. A “wink and a nod” on legality is insufficient.  The ramifications of a non-legal solution is pretty simple a fine during a ramp check or an insurance company not paying out for an incident or accident.  These can be costly. The FAA defines that a Part 91 operator can use a Class 1 EFB (COTS Computer). In AC No: 91-78 it states “EFBs/ECDs can be used during all phases of flight operations in lieu of paper reference material …”.

So we can use them if we verify that the computing devices does not interfere with our on board equipment.  How do we do that?

FAA Advisory Circular 91.21.1B provides guidance on how to test PEDs. It states that the pilot in command or operator can conduct an operational test without the use of sophisticated equipment. While at cruise altitude, allow the device to be operated. If interference occurs, turn the device off and make a recording of the data. If interference is not experienced, then the operator has complied with 14 CFR 91.21.  [i]

That means we can replace our paper with and EFB if we check the device and ensure that it does not interfere with existing equipment. We need to tell the FAA inspector how we did it If asked. Additionally under AC 92.21B paragraph 7, “The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) currently prohibits the use of cell phones while airborne.”.

The FAA supports this. So unless we have declared an emergency and are operating under 91.3 “In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency”, we have to leave all cell phones as well as 3G/4G devices in the off position. This means that iPhones, iPADs and Slate Computers with a 2G/3G/4G options must be in the “Airplane Mode on”. This renders the A-GPS chip off on Apple devices.  [ii]

Feature Selection

This is the hardest decision to make because we all want everything.  A feature rich system sounds good on the ground but usually has the disadvantages of being slow and complex. A system with few features has the disadvantage of requiring more “things” in the panel scan to render situational awareness. So balancing this is key to a successful purchase. Too simple or too complex and it sits on the shelf. Much like “Goldlocks and the Three Bears” it must be just right.  Make list of the things you must have and would like to have to compare devices. Personally, I have 6 flight planners that are free on the Internet to use or are downloadable to a PC. Flight planning was not on my list; other than can I put my route it.

Flying Habits

You flying habits will also affect the unit selection. For instance, what is your longest flight? If it is 2 hours battery life will be less important? If it is 8 hours, I have a pilot relief tube flying you’ll need a DC adapter. Additionally, the nominal flight altitude will affect the selection. If you have a Cessna 172 that never goes over 10,000’ you don’t need a solid state drive (SSD). If you have Turbo 210 or Mooney 252 you need a Solid State drive.  If you mostly fly in weather or at night, screen brightness is less of an issue.

Aircraft Type:

There are three types of aircraft that affect EFB selection: Bubble Canopy (or Open Cockpit) like an RV3, Swift, or Stearman, High wing aircraft like a C172 or Remos, Low Wing Aircraft like a Tiger, Mooney or Piper. The bubble canopy or open cockpit will require the brightest screen imaginable or a very good shade. The high wing aircraft will probably block GPS signals for units with internal GPS an no external antenna (why Garmin 396/496 units come with an external antenna). The Low wing aircraft will require a moderately, bright screen.

Usability/fly(ability)

The number one issue cited in selection criteria is how usable is the hardware and software as well as how does it fit into the existing panel scan. This can comprise everything from where do I mount it to where is that function?  It is highly recommended that you try the product in your cockpit or a similar one. If you are going to use a tablet computer or iPad take into the aircraft prior to purchasing the software.  How fast are screen changes? Try chair flying the device on a regular trip from start all the way to finish. Pay particular attention to the approach phase of the flight. “That’s when it gets busy”.  Another good question is how big is the screen? iPhone is great for phone calls, but I need my reading classes to play some of the games. Screen size is important. Can I see the whole approach plate or do I have to pan/zoom to see parts?

Geocoding

Geocoded charts/plates allow a GPS unit to put a “marker” on your current location. There are some issues here that are not usually discussed during the sales phase of product selection. An issue with geocoding is the GPS that is placing the marker is usually a consumer GPS. That means it can be off quite a bit and does not have a RAIM feature to calculate lost position like a panel mount. It is great to have a marker on the charts for situation awareness, but one needs to be conscience that the panel mount GPS is usually right. Geocode approach plates also seem like a good idea on the ground, but once you are on the ILS the needle is what needs to get flown. There have been deaths of people using pocket approach plates that are geocoded, where they ignored the ILS for the handheld.

What else can it do?

Some platforms are also can do additional things. A PC or iPAD for instance can be used for email as well as watching a movie in the hotel room.  PC Platforms can run the various panel GPS update programs so if you are flying across database update times, you don’t need to carry a second computer. You don’t save weight if you have to carry several computing platforms.

Weather/Traffic/Terrain

Side note on weather, in today’s GA cockpits there are two basic choices for weather XM (paid at 30 or 60 month) and ADS-B free. Devices like a Garmin 396/496 are relatively inexpensive weather MFDs. There more you put on a single display the slower it goes. More graphical representations take more time to depict.  If you are looking at a one box does all, or they way I put it “A poor man’s G1000” make sure that the computing platform is sufficient to display all of that in heavy weather or traffic situations.

How Fast is it “Really”?

Demonstrations of speed are usually keyed to make any unit look good. Try panning/moving all over the map. Does it take a long time? What about switching from IFR, VFR, or Approach plates? The average time for an approach is just 3-4 minutes from IAF to touch down. Every second can be precious if things are getting “interesting”.

Can it be used in bumpy weather?

Steve Jobes invention of the pinch, drag and gesture is incredible. Almost every device has implemented some variation of that.  Have a friend simulate some light turbulence while you are trying to use the device, can you? Some gestures are hard to do in turbulence. Check it out thoroughly.

Putting it all together

I have a friend that always writes his conclusions as putting “A Sharp Point” on it. The following is a table to help put things in context so that a reasonable comparison can be made.

Decision Matrix

Questions to ask:

  • Initial purchase cost
  • Annual subscription cost
  • Software Features that you must have?

- Flight Planning (on/offline)?
- VFR Charts
- IFR Charts Low Enroute
- Approach Plates/Procedures
- Airport Directory of one kind or another (AFD or AOPA)?
- Do you fly above 18K? If so high-enroute. Good to have if you have a turbo and might need one day.
- How long does it take to update the information?

  • Subscription

- What is included?
- Is it priced by region/country
- Do I pay for everything ala-carte?

  • Hardware Features

- Can I buy my own hardware?
- What is the warranty?
- How is warranty work done?
- What platform? (PC/iPAD/Proprietary)
- Is an SSD Required (Do you fly above 10k’ regularly?)
- External USB port for Jeppesen / King updater?
- Screen Brightness

* SUPER BRIGHT for Canopy
* Moderate Bright for Low Wing
* Regular screen for High Wing

- GPS

* Can the GPS be used in flight? (AC 92.21)
* Does it work with your aircraft (Hi/low wing)
* How long does the battery last? (Recommend a 4hr).
* Heavy use of transmitters Bluetooth , WiFi, or 3G limit battery life

  • Weather (Is it an option)?

- XM    [ Paid ]
- ADS-B  [Free ]
- What does the receiver cost?

  • Terrain(Is it an option)?

- Do I need it?
- Might already be in my 430/530.

  • What is my total cost of ownership for the year?

 

Additional Issues with iPAD/iPhone

There are a couple of issues to consider with iPhone/iPAD devices. The average set of charts is 4-6GB of data. How long does it take to backup under iTunes or download updates? The Apple store has some limitations on numbers of files and sizes for download.

Actual mileage will vary, but try to download the whole country, backup or sync. The cable is a USB 2.0 and that limits the speed of backup.  Also, battery life on these devices is very task dependant. My son can kill my iPhone in an hour playing some games.

Colin Bitterfield