Pilot report: flying with Stratus 2

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The second generation Stratus ADS-B receiver, the follow-on to the immensely popular Stratus 1, was announced last month at Sun ‘n Fun and is now shipping. With units starting to hit the street, many pilots have asked for a real world PIREP on how Stratus 2 works in day-to-day operations. We’ve been flying with the final version of Stratus 2 for over a month now, so we’ll share our experience here.

NEXRAD on ForeFlight Maps page
The combination of track up moving map and NEXRAD is a powerful thing.

Weather

In spite of all the sophisticated features built into Stratus 2, the subscription-free weather available via ADS-B is still the most important one for many pilots. Just like Stratus 1, the new unit receives almost every weather product you would want: NEXRAD radar, TFRs, AIRMETs/SIGMETs, METARs, TAFs, Pilot Reports and NOTAMs. The only item that’s really missing from this list is satellite imagery. While the satellite picture is nice, this is really more of a pre-flight tool since it isn’t updated as often. In our experience, radar plus METARs are the critical ones for both VFR and IFR flying. TFRs are always nice to stay legal, and are a close second.

The other piece of good news is that the specifics of how ADS-B works (high vs. low towers, weather transmission rates) really aren’t important. In practice, radar is usually about 5 minutes old and text weather reports appear shortly after being issued. Coverage is also increasingly good. We’ve flown all over the country, and except for a few major holes (Kansas, Wyoming), we’ve almost always had good reception at altitude and seen the full national NEXRAD mosaic. Count on consistent coverage east of the Mississippi River, all throughout the sunbelt and up the Pacific coast. You don’t have to be on top of a tower to get reception. For example, at Sporty’s we’re about 30 miles from the closest ADS-B ground station, yet we routinely pick that station up at 200 ft. AGL with Stratus.

Our advice is not to get bogged down in the details–just fly. Recognize that ADS-B weather isn’t real time (no datalink weather product is), so it’s for strategic weather planning and not for penetrating lines of storms. But don’t obsess about the age of weather. At the end of the day, your eyes should always get a veto over anything you see on radar.

Also, don’t obsess over the number of stations you’re receiving–while we usually see 5-12 stations depending on location, one is all you need. There is zero benefit to seeing 8 vs. 6, for example. If your weather information is updating regularly, fly on.

The real power of the system is how the weather data is displayed in the app–good hardware is worthless without good software. Specifically, it’s all about the ability to view weather data in context. We’ve all heard the Air Traffic Controller say, “Convective SIGMET from 40nm south of Nowhere to 60 east of Nowhere…” That information is hard to put into use. But a graphical depiction of a SIGMET, overlaid on a sectional chart and with your airplane’s position is extremely valuable. On top of that, each weather overlay reinforces the other–if you hear a PIREP for severe turbulence, it can be comforting to see that the airplane was right in the middle of a red cell and not just flying in clear air.

Information in context is always more powerful, and the iPad makes it easy to zoom in and pan around for more details about weather. This isn’t necessarily specific to the Stratus, but it’s an important point when considering iPad-based weather maps vs. other sources.

ADS-B traffic
Tap on a target for complete traffic details.

ADS-B Traffic

Most pilots worry about mid-air collisions (even though the statistics show it’s low on the list of accident causes), so the promise of free traffic via ADS-B has always been appealing. And Stratus 2 does include a dual band ADS-B receiver for the best possible traffic picture. But due to the nature of the system, “best possible” still isn’t very good unless you have a panel-mount ADS-B Out transponder in your airplane (like the Garmin GDL 88).

Without getting into all the details (you can read those here), our experience is that you won’t see many traffic targets that are real threats. In general, you’ll see plenty of airliners up high (who have ADS-B Out), and you’ll see lots of traffic if you fly near areas with a lot of ADS-B Out airplanes (UPS in Louisville, KY or Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach, FL). Occasionally you’ll also fly close to another airplane with ADS-B Out, which will light up a ground tower. When that happens, you can get a pretty decent view of nearby traffic. In fact, sometimes the traffic can be overwhelming, so we have come to really appreciate ForeFlight’s “filter traffic” feature, which is selected from the gear menu on the Maps page. This hides traffic that isn’t within +/-3500 ft. and 15nm radius of your airplane. So while you will often see traffic that is hundreds of miles away, it’s of no value. Turn on the filter and focus on nearby traffic.

In general, we wouldn’t depend on ADS-B traffic for anything more than supplemental information. It’s simply too spotty to be of much use unless you have ADS-B Out in your airplane. If you do equip with ADS-B Out, the story changes dramatically. In this case, your airplane will cause the ADS-B ground stations to transmit a complete traffic picture back up to your Stratus, so the overall traffic picture is spectacular. You’ll see almost all traffic–including non-ADS-B Out targets. And ForeFlight’s traffic display is pretty clean: each target shows relative altitude, speed, projected track and N-number (if available). You can tap on a target for complete details.

Should you add ADS-B Out to your panel just to get better quality ADS-B In traffic? Maybe. If you fly in high traffic areas, it may be a smart investment, since you’ll have to equip with ADS-B Out by 2020 anyway. But if you don’t feel like spending the money on a panel-mount ADS-B transceiver, we certainly wouldn’t view that as a mistake at this point.

Stratus Horizon screen
The Stratus Horizon app displays pitch, roll, track, groundspeed and GPS altitude.

Attitude

The inclusion of an Attitude Heading Reference System (AHRS) in Stratus 2 adds significant new capability for a portable device. Most importantly, it means pilots can have an accurate attitude backup–a valuable safety feature if your airplane has an aging gyro. The AHRS is completely self-contained inside the Stratus case, so there’s no installation or wires. It also has some fairly sophisticated auto-calibration features, which is a real time-saver. In most airplanes, we simply turn on Stratus, place it in the dash mount and go flying.

That brings up the question of mounting, and the good news here is that Stratus is flexible. It snaps into a hard plastic cradle, which sits on a non-slip silicone pad. The unit does not have to be perfectly level on the dash, and it will sense which way is up or down. The only limitations are that the lights on Stratus should point to the back of the airplane, and the unit shouldn’t slide around in flight (that’s true of any AHRS–stability is the key).

Once Stratus is on the glare shield and turned on, you can open the Stratus Horizon app (which is free). In most cases, that’s all there is to do. The app will display a large attitude indicator, which is updated multiple times per second for a smooth and quick-reacting display. Three tapes show speed, altitude and vertical speed–all of which are based on GPS data. Above the attitude indicator is a course indicator and below is a rate of turn indicator. It would certainly be enough to get you down to VFR conditions if you lost your attitude indicator in the soup.

If you do need to make a manual calibration–say, in a taildragger–tap the “i” button at the top right and you can adjust pitch and roll in one degree increments. Once in flight, if you need to recalibrate there is a handy “straight and level” button. Tap this and the attitude indicator levels out. This is a nice quick-fix feature.

It’s easy to switch between ForeFlight and Horizon, although in most cases ForeFlight is the most useful app. But one setup that we like a lot, and one that gives you both, is to run ForeFlight on your iPad and Horizon on your iPhone. It’s a complete backup suite. Of course, Stratus Horizon is strictly a backup and should never be used as a primary flight display.

Hazard Advisor
When connected to the Stratus built-in GPS, ForeFlight’s Hazard Advisor comes alive.

GPS

Accurate position information from GPS isn’t a very exciting feature anymore–it’s expected with any modern avionics. But Stratus does eliminate the need for an external GPS like a Dual 150 or Garmin GLO with its built-in WAAS GPS. It’s also worth mentioning that the Stratus 2 features an improved GPS receiver compared to Stratus 1. We’ve obtained a GPS lock with the unit inside, far away from any windows, which isn’t possible with some GPSs. There’s also a GPS status light on the case, so you know at a glance if you have a good GPS lock.

Finally, the GPS enables a number of great ForeFlight features that have been recently added, most notably track up navigation and the Hazard Advisor. With Stratus and ForeFlight (a Pro level subscription in particular), you have a lot of information at your fingertips, from weather and traffic to attitude and terrain/obstacle warnings.

ForeFlight Integration

One of the most under-appreciated features of Stratus is its seamless integration with the ForeFlight Mobile app. The two were obviously built as a system, not an afterthought. In general, all the weather products work the same way via Stratus and the internet, so there’s no need to re-learn how to use the app. For example, radar is the same layer no matter what the source (some other apps have a separate FIS-B radar layer that can be confusing).

The best integration feature is the Stratus Status menu that is accessible from either the gear menu on the Maps page or from the Devices menu on the More page. The Maps page drop-down window is the best option–you can check on the age of individual weather products, see how many stations you’re receiving and check battery life while still viewing your moving map on the right 2/3rds of the screen. You can even dim the LEDs on Stratus from within the app, a handy feature for night flights (Stratus has an auto-dimming feature, but the manual adjustment is a nice added touch).

Firmware updates, which update the software that resides on Stratus and can bring new functionality, are easy to do right from ForeFlight. There’s no need to ever connect Stratus to a computer–new firmware is contained in ForeFlight and you can simply tap a button to update. It’s a small thing, but it helps

Stratus 2 dash mount
Stratus 2 includes a non-slip dash mount that works well in most airplanes.

Mounting Options

Stratus 2 ships with a non-slip dash mount, which works well in most airplanes. Again, Stratus does not have to be perfectly level to work. Our advice on mounting is to experiment–every airplane has a location that is the right mix of seeing up to the sky for GPS, down to the ground for ADS-B and not being excessively hot.

Stratus 2 is white and includes a fan, so is fairly resistant to high temperatures. We haven’t had any issues with overheating so far, but no battery-powered device is completely immune to extreme temperatures. Stratus will shut itself down before it becomes dangerously hot (just like your iPad). This is a good thing–just ask Boeing what happens to lithium batteries if they overheat. Again, for 90% of pilots, we don’t think heat will be an issue.

If you do fly in the desert and are concerned about heat, one good option is a suction cup mount. This gets Stratus up off the glare shield, which is usually the hottest place in the airplane. But it also improves GPS and ADS-B performance. Since you can see complete status information in ForeFlight, there’s no need to have Stratus within reach during flight. Mount it on a back window if you prefer.

Finally, Stratus 2 features remotable GPS and ADS-B antennas, so you can put the unit in a side pocket or even under a seat if needed. In this setup, you would run the two antenna wires up to a side window, where the short antennas attach with suction cups. Business jet pilots may find this to be helpful, especially with thick, heated windshields. This is also great for semi-permanent mounting, as some experimental airplane builders are starting to do. If you plan to hard-wire Stratus 2, select the “Turn on when powered” feature from the ForeFlight Stratus Status menu. This will automatically turn on Stratus 2 when power is applied, and turn it off shortly after you turn off the master switch.

Conclusion

Overall, our experience with Stratus has been very positive. The highest praise we can offer is that it just works–we turn it on and go flying. It’s certainly not perfect (for one, we’d like to see more AHRS integration into ForeFlight), but it has the feel of a second generation product: performance has been improved, features have been added and reliability is better. Like the iPad in general, it’s simply incredible the amount of information we now have at our fingertips. It would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

For more information on Stratus, click here.

25 COMMENTS

    • Stratus 2 is on backorder right now. We are shipping units every week, but if you order today, it would ship in mid-June.

  1. I just bought a stratus 1 in March and wished you had an update option to upgrade to Status 2. It seems as Stratus 1 was outdated before i used it.

    • Bryce, feel free to email us at ipad@sportys.com and we can help. However, your Stratus 1 is not outdated–the recent addition of traffic shows that we will continue to update it.

  2. I must say that this move is a big disappointment. Stratus/Appareo really have put it to customers that bought the Stratus v1. How long will it be before v3 comes out and renders v2 do news? 1 yr. 6 months?
    Calls to Stratus yield nothing.

    • Yeah, I hate it when companies come out with new products. Sure wish Apple would have stuck with the IPad 1.

  3. A signifcant limitation of Stratus: Stratus 2’s proprietary software allows it to communicate ONLY with ForeFlight. From Appereo: “Thank you for contacting Appareo regarding Stratus. At this time, Stratus will only talk with ForeFlight. When we first released Stratus, we decided that we wanted to make sure that everything worked seamlessly with the software app. By allowing Stratus to “talk” to several apps we felt this would introduce a lot more possible issues. Our partnership with ForeFlight is such that any issues and problems are resolved together quickly. At this time, there are no plans to open Stratus to other devices but I’m not saying is not possible in the future sometime.”

    It was extremely disappointing to pay $900 for a top flight device only to learn that the makers don’t allow it to work with other extraordinarily useful apps, most critically, Austin Meyer’s brilliant Xavion [xavion.com; “Xavion is the iPad’s answer to modern avionics. It is both a glass cockpit and a copilot for your airplane. Xavion gives you synthetic vision, GPS navigation, and instrument backups. Plus, in an engine-out situation, it will guide you to landing at a nearby airport!”] There are other apps that could benefit from Stratus 2, like CloudAhoy. And, Stratus 2 does not work with any of the other EFB apps, like AOPA FlyQ EFB, Avilution, Bendix King myWingMan EFB, Flight Guide iEFB, Naviator and WingX Pro 7.

    It is a shame Sporty’s Pilot Shop, ForeFlight and Appareo elected to be so proprietary. Had I known I would have elected to purchase one of the other, competing GPS-WAAS with ADS-B Weather and Traffic receivers. I hope Appareo comes around soon.

    • We’re sorry for any misunderstanding, Larry. We do try to make it clear in our advertising that Stratus is made for ForeFlight, and does not work with any other apps at this time. Our main goal was to have Stratus support the vast majority of pilots out there, and the numbers show that something like 75% of pilots are flying with ForeFlight. That’s why our focus has been on ForeFlight.

      Integrating an ADS-B receiver and an app the right way is not easy, and it’s our goal to make this integration completely seamless. Xavion is a great app and we are big fans of what Austin Meyer does. But for now we’re committed to making Stratus work as well as it can on ForeFlight.

  4. Following on from Larry’s comment, I love Foreflight for most things, and don’t mind the Stratus ADS-B/Foreflight limitation. However, I would like to know whether other apps can use the Stratus 2 GPS position? I have flown with Jepp approach charts for years, and would like to know if it’s possible to use the device to feed an external GPS signal to Jepp Mobile FD and use Foreflight for everything else?

    • No, other apps can’t use the Stratus GPS without specifically integrating it. This is one of those double-edged swords – by connecting to Stratus directly, ForeFlight bypasses Apple’s location services feature. This is great, because it eliminates the GPS bug that has been plaguing Dual 150 users. But the downside is that it means that GPS location doesn’t show up in other apps.

  5. I operate a Challenger 604 and operate up to FL410. I tried v1 with an external antenna and at high altitude performance was poor. Does v2 work in corporate jet aircraft?

    • Tom, was your problem with Stratus 1 GPS or ADS-B reception? Stratus 1 had a remote ADS-B antenna option, but not one for GPS. We found that the GPS signal could be affected by the thick, heated windshields on some jets.

      Stratus 2 has both a better internal GPS receiver and an option for a remote GPS antenna. It should work just fine in your airplane–we regularly fly it in a Citation, and have flight tested it on everything from Falcons to 737s.

  6. I to was thinking of buying stratus receiver to interface with my I-fly 720. Because it was wireless, but found out it would not work. I fly 720 is one of the best and least expensive displays out there. To bad you are losing so many sales because of your priority to one devise.

  7. Suction Mounts,

    I use a suction mount for the ipad mini and Stratus 2. Just wondered if anyone else may have had this problem: in moderate temperature changes such as being in a warm hangar, 60 degrees, then suddenly outside where the temp could be 30 or less, I sometimes find my ipad still attached to the mount but laying in the seat. I have also had the Stratus 2 fall off the side window during an instrument approach to minimums. I wouldn’t say this was dangerous but it was distracting at low a altitude. Anyone?

  8. I wish the stratus could be used with multiple apps; even if only for the GPS functionality so I don’t need to carry 2 GPS for cloudahoy.

  9. Al, Make sure you use the RAM suction mounts. They seem to be the strongest. They now have a dual suction mount. I’ve used mine externally on a 4×4 off-road over major bumps and have never had one detach.

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