Behind the Apps: Garmin Pilot

6 min read

This article is the first in a new series called “Behind the Apps,” where we profile the people behind some of the most popular aviation apps. While tens of thousands of pilots fly with Garmin Pilot, WingX, ForeFlight and other apps, most don’t know the people who write the code or the history of the app. We hope to add a little human color to the world of app development. First up is Jan Mackenzie from Garmin.

1. How did Garmin Pilot get started?

The roots of Garmin Pilot go back to 1998 when Craig Burfeind, a meteorologist, software engineer and pilot co-founded a company named Digital Cyclone. The premise behind Digital Cyclone was that in the future, consumers would receive weather information via mobile devices. In 2002, Nextel launched the Motorola i85 and Digital Cyclone introduced the first internet-enabled weather app, My-Cast. The phone was primitive with a black and white display and the app showed basic weather as well as a gray scale radar image.

Garmin Pilot developer team

The team behind Garmin Pilot.

Later that year, Nextel launched the first color phone, the Motorola i95 and My-Cast gained popularity. Burfeind wanted to develop a version of My-Cast for aviators and Pilot My-Cast launched in December of 2002. The app featured METARs, TAFs and an animated radar image. At Oshkosh 2003, Pilot My-Cast was drawing large crowds to see the first aviation weather app for a cell phone.

Fast forward to January of 2007 when Garmin International acquired Digital Cyclone. Garmin saw the future of mobile applications and Digital Cyclone’s engineering and aviation focus was a good fit for their company.

In April of 2012, Pilot My-Cast became Garmin Pilot with a new user interface designed to match Garmin’s latest touch screen avionics. Today, Digital Cyclone is Garmin’s development arm for aviation apps, leveraging the engineering expertise from Garmin portables and certified products.

2. Who’s the team behind the Garmin Pilot?

Craig Burfeind, a multi-engine rated pilot and flight instructor leads the Garmin Pilot engineering team. This creative team with over 60 years of combined mobile development experience encompasses a mix of youthful exuberance and seasoned veterans. The team has a strong passion for aviation software development and a commitment to developing an app that simplifies a pilot’s flying experience. Some of our members are well on their way to obtaining their pilot’s license and the team is strongly engaged in the aviation community.

3. You are a part of a larger company, but operate as a separate group. How does this arrangement work?

Being a subsidiary of Garmin allows Digital Cyclone to be a small, entrepreneurial team within a well-respected company. We collaborate with Garmin on overall product direction and then operate autonomously to achieve our goals in a fast-paced work environment. Our customers benefit from our ability to leverage Garmin’s portable and certified technology within Garmin Pilot. Recent examples of this include the incorporation of dynamic layer maps that orient to the pilot’s direction of flight and advanced terrain alerting that uses complex algorithms to determine potential conflicts. In addition, we are able to integrate our software with cutting edge hardware and benefit from the experienced pilot community within Garmin.

4. What do you think is unique about your approach to developing apps?

Our approach to application development starts with the customer and ends with the answer to the question, ‘Why Garmin?’ We consider how we can integrate Garmin Pilot within Garmin’s overall strategy. As Garmin Pilot is supported on iOS and Android, both teams collaborate on design but have the freedom to implement features based upon the uniqueness of the hardware platform.

5. What’s one thing you wish every pilot understood about apps?

Garmin has a rich history with vertical integration, which means Garmin has controlled the hardware, software, operating system and product support to ensure the best possible customer experience. In the case of both iOS and Android, applications are written for a hardware platform and operating system, which we do not control. This adds challenges to our job, which we work hard to overcome. Android is a rapidly changing landscape. Currently, there are almost 12,000 distinct Android devices on the market each supporting different versions of the Android operating system. As the hardware platform changes, we are committed to supporting new devices while offering pilots a feature-rich navigation application.

6. What has surprised you most about the app revolution in aviation?

It is exciting that a consumer device, targeted for the masses, has become an indispensible tool for general aviation, corporate and commercial pilots. Tablets have replaced paper charts and apps play a utilitarian role whether for pre-flight planning, weather briefing or navigation in flight.

Garmin D2 Pilot watch

Garmin’s new D2 Pilot Watch integrates with the company’s apps.

7. What do you think is the hottest trend in aviation apps right now?

The hottest trends in aviation apps include ADS-B weather and traffic, as well as connectivity to hardware accessories, like the Garmin D2 Pilot Watch.  Furthermore, integrating applications to certified flight decks is growing in popularity.

8. Garmin is unique among the major app developers in that you offer a full-featured app for both iOS and Android. What differences do you see between the two platforms?

iOS is a mature hardware platform that has quickly become the de facto standard for the aviation community. Android is young and rapidly evolving with a variety of devices from handsets to 10” tablets and everything in-between. The Android platform offers more opportunity to integrate Garmin Pilot with hardware offerings such as Google Glass and the Garmin D2 Pilot Watch.

9. What trends do you see in terms of iOS vs. Android? Is Android gaining in aviation the way it is in the consumer market or does Apple remain in control?

Apple was first to market and definitely made its mark on the aviation community. Many pilots have become comfortable with the design and user interface of iOS devices. However, Android is steadily gaining more market share and pilots are becoming interested in using devices with open architecture that offer a lower cost to enter the market. Whether pilots choose iOS or Android, Garmin Pilot is committed to bringing innovative technology to enhance their flying experience.

10. Pull out your crystal ball—what does the world of tablets look like in 2018?

Five years is a long time in this industry and we believe the fast paced nature of the market will continue. We anticipate faster, thinner devices that are also easier to use, perhaps incorporating more gesture-based technology. Peripheral devices such as watches or wearable displays may provide many new and interesting features. It is likely that devices with various new sensors will have more knowledge of your aircraft, flight plan and surroundings.

For more information on Garmin Pilot, click here.