2013 proved (as if anyone didn’t believe it already) that the iPad is no passing fad–not in the overall consumer market and not for pilots. More and more pilots made the move to tablets this year, from students to old pros. As the year draws to a close, it’s worth pausing to consider just how far we’ve come in the past 12 months. With that in mind, here’s our annual look at the year that was: the new apps, the new features, the accessory introductions and much more.
In many ways, the iPad became the center of the cockpit this year, graduating from mere accessory to required item–one that’s used before, during and after flight. While it first caught on as a tool for pre-flight planning or digital charts, you’ll now see the iPad used for in-flight navigation, datalink weather, synthetic vision, backup attitude and so much more. The iPad really has become the center of attention.
We began 2013 wondering if Android would overtake Apple’s iPad as the top tablet–after all, a wave of inexpensive Android tablets was hitting the market. In the end, it wasn’t even close. As far as aviation is concerned, the iPad maintains its dominant position. Sure, Android tablets are very popular among general consumers, and there are good options for pilots, but our informal polling shows that close to 80% of tablet pilots use the iPad. There are a number of reasons for this, but whatever the cause, the iPad doesn’t appear to be threatened much by all the lower cost competition.
The same trend is true for apps: while there are more aviation apps than ever, the big three (ForeFlight, Garmin and WingX) are, if anything, getting stronger. Many pilots have made their choice, and while it’s not all that hard to switch apps, human nature suggests that we don’t like change. It’s a bit like the eternal Coke/Pepsi debate: what you grew up drinking is probably what you still drink. For a new app trying to get started, the barriers to entry are higher than ever, as the big three apps offer a truly impressive set of features. Trying to recreate all these is no small task.
Heavy iron falls for the iPad
The popularity of the iPad continues to spread far beyond early adopters and cost-conscious pilots. Airlines, corporate flight departments and the military are quickly adopting the iPad as well, making the move faster than any other consumer technology we can remember. While these organizations were once known for their preference for custom-made (and expensive) avionics, the combination of the iPad’s performance and thinner budgets has brought about a major change in philosophy. The paperwork to certify the iPad for Part 135 or 121 operators isn’t simple (there are services that can help), but it’s happening anyway. Look in the cockpit of the next airliner you board–there’s a good chance you’ll see an iPad or two.
The major app developers stayed quite busy in 2013, with a number of significant new features coming to all of the major aviation apps. The focus this year seemed to be on in-flight features, like track up moving maps, terrain and obstacle alerts and enhanced ADS-B features like traffic.
The big three
ForeFlight was the most aggressive app developer in 2013, releasing a number of major updates on a regular schedule. Every 6 weeks seemed to bring new features, and ForeFlight was rewarded with strong sales–it was among the top 50 highest grossing apps in the entire App Store throughout the year. Among the most popular features added in 2013 were track up moving map, terrain/obstacle alerting (via its Hazard Advisor) and the ability to overlay approach plates on the moving map. All of these enhancements made the Maps page in ForeFlight the center of attention, with its flexible selection of layers making it easy to customize the map for each flight. Other upgrades included plate annotations, expected route alerts, an upgraded FBO directory, ADS-B traffic, runway centerlines, auto-display of taxi diagrams, the ingenious traffic pattern advisor and the ability to perform background chart downloads.
The biggest news for ForeFlight was its push into new markets. Notably, it unveiled full Canadian coverage, with both VFR and IFR charts. This makes it a legitimate option as a paper replacement for Canadian pilots, and a helpful tool for US pilots flying north of the border. ForeFlight also added helicopter charts, which can be smartly overlaid on sectional or IFR en route charts for a complete rotary wing option. Search and rescue pilots also got some attention, with the addition of extensive map grid overlays, seven search patterns and the ability to include CAP, CAP Cell, GARS and MGRS coordinates in routes. Finally, it bolstered its offerings for corporate and airline users, including a new cloud documents feature that allows flight departments to share documents across multiple iPads with a simple Dropbox interface. It’s clear that this app is not just for Cessna drivers anymore. Read all our articles about ForeFlight here.
Garmin got off to a fast start in 2013, releasing version 5.0 of its Pilot app at Sun ‘n Fun. This major upgrade added a number of new features, including track up navigation, chart annotations and its dynamic maps. These data-driven maps offer a useful alternative to digital versions of paper charts, with automatic decluttering and text that always appears right-side up. This is a feature that neither ForeFlight nor WingX offers. Garmin also added terrain and obstacle maps, plus pop-up alerts modeled on their impressive panel-mount GTN 750. Other new Garmin features included: preferred route selection tools, Airport/Facility Directory information, distance rings and extended runway centerlines.
Not to be lost in all the iPad features is the significant upgrades Garmin made to its industry-leading Android app. While it still lags the iOS version, we think it’s the most complete and intuitive option for Android pilots. Finally, we went behind the scenes at Garmin to meet the team that works on the app in this interview. Read all our articles about Garmin Pilot here.
WingX had fewer updates in 2013, although it’s worth pointing out that they offered some features like track up and terrain already. The biggest upgrade was the addition of Baron pre-flight weather graphics. WingX users can now view complete weather graphics when connected to the internet, including NEXRAD, satellite, echo tops and more. Other enhancements included a new TFR engine, additional search and rescue options, new ADS-B receiver integrations and support for Microsoft Flight Simulator X. Read all our articles about WingX here.
Two other apps competed with the big three for pilots’ attention in 2013: AOPA’s FlyQ and Bendix/King’s myWingman. FlyQ was introduced in 2012 by the pilot association, as its first foray into tablet apps. It launched with plenty of high end features, and added a few new ones in 2013, including a variety of new map overlay options, full terrain/obstacle maps, fuel prices and AIRMET/SIGMET overlays. Another nice addition was FlyQ’s pre-flight checklist, which does a quick analysis of your iPad’s current setup and displays red or green status symbols to indicate if the proper charts and data are downloaded for your active flight plan.
Bendix/King’s myWingman, like FlyQ developed by Seattle Avionics, released a big update in late summer, adding graphical airspace warnings, terrain/obstacle alerts and ADS-B traffic with 3D audio alerting. Both apps match the big three on most features, but they don’t seem to have caught on with a large number of pilots.
The number of new entrants in 2013 shows how the app market is maturing, as there were few major announcements. One of the most significant ones came from Fltplan.com. The popular flight planning website launched a completely new version of its app, called Fltplan Go, which includes full moving map features, geo-referenced approach plates, navigation logs, weight and balance and much more. It’s not quite up to par with ForeFlight or WingX, but for a free app it offers tremendous value. Late in the year, Adventure Pilot launched their all-new iFly GPS app, which replicates much of the functionality of their stand-alone GPSs on an iPad app. Look for a pilot report on this app soon.
Other app news
There was a lot more news in the app world during 2013, including:
- Sporty’s released a big update to its popular E6B flight computer app.
- We deemed SkyDemon the best app for European pilots, and reviewed the major new features that have been added recently.
- Electronic logbooks increased in popularity, with a number of proven apps available.
- Sporty’s released a complete instrument rating course app.
- GoPro gave its camera owners the option to start and stop recording using its upgraded app.
We also released a few lists of top apps:
- Top 8 weather apps
- Top 10 free apps
- Top apps for turbine pilots
- 6 weather apps you might now know about
While 2012 saw the introduction of many new types of iPad accessories, 2013 brought significant improvements and new features to these products. Part of this was out of necessity, driven by the design changes of the iPad Mini and Air models, but also many of the improvements came from companies listening to what pilots wanted. ADS-B and GPS receivers added new capabilities, kneeboards and mounting options were refined, and we even got a new innovative watch and video camera from Garmin, both compatible with the iPad.
ADS-B receivers do it all
The single most popular iPad accessory for 2013 continued to be the portable ADS-B receiver. These exploded in growth in 2012 and can take a large amount of the credit for helping pilots understand and take advantage of the benefits of the ADS-B system. Only one year after releasing the first portable ADS-B receiver for ForeFlight at Sun ‘n Fun in April 2012, Appareo, ForeFlight and Sporty’s released the second-generation Stratus in early 2013. Not only was the design and performance improved, but it added to the weather and GPS capabilities of Stratus by including a dual-band traffic receiver and an AHRS to display an accurate depiction of aircraft attitude on the iPad. The original Stratus was also upgraded with a free firmware update to provide ADS-B traffic in ForeFlight.
The ADS-B system itself also improved in 2013, adding a significant number of new ground stations and increased coverage throughout the US. There are still some areas in Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and Montana that are not covered yet, but most of the highly-travelled routes across the US provide excellent reception (check out the latest ground-station map here). Additionally, more and more airliners and GA aircraft are equipping with ADS-B Out transponders, meaning the air-to-air traffic picture you receive on your iPad is becoming more useful.
There were several other ADS-B receivers released in 2013 from Dual, Sagetech and iLevil that are compatible with WingX Pro, AOPA FlyQ and the myWingMan app from Bendix King. And Garmin’s GDL 39 continued to be a popular companion to the Garmin Pilot app, along with being a solid ADS-B receiver for pilots flying with Android tablets. To help you keep them all straight, here’s a good chart comparing the features of these portable ADS-B receivers.
GPS receivers add more capability
The first external GPS accessory for iPad came from Bad Elf in 2011 and plugged into the bottom of the iPad. This relied on the original 30-pin connector and quickly became obsolete over the past year as Apple transitioned to the new Lightning style connection for data transfer and charging. While it took a little over a year to bring to market, Bad Elf released the Lighting model GPS receiver for iPad in late 2013, providing a plug-in GPS solution for the iPad Mini and iPad Air.
The wireless Bluetooth GPS receivers also received some nice upgrades during 2013. One of the drawbacks with the first-generation Bluetooth iPad GPS units is that they could only connect to one device at at time. Both Bad Elf and Dual addressed this by adding Pro models to their GPS receiver lines, which allow connections to up to 5 devices simultaneously. And not to be left out, Garmin provided a free firmware update to the Garmin GLO GPS that allows it to connect to multiple iPads as well.
iPad Mounts continue to evolve
Apple’s dedication to making the iPad thinner and lighter kept iPad mount and kneeboard developers on their toes this year. While the iPad Mini was announced in 2012, the majority of the iPad Mini mounts and kneeboards didn’t hit the market until the first quarter of 2013. These compact designs allowed pilots to keep the iPad close at hand and and useable in tight cockpits. And for the ultimate in minimalist kneeboard design, the MyClip Mini kneeboard was released for the smaller size iPad.
The thinner design of the iPad Air meant some of the form-fitting kneeboards and Ram mount cradles needed a redesign, and they’re not available quite yet. Fortunately the flexibility of Sporty’s iPad kneeboards and the Ram spring-loaded iPad cradle secure the iPad Air well and are available now.
Ram did release one new mounting product this year, the double suction cup mount. This adds an additional level of security over the standard suction cup, and is required for some corporate and airline operators.
Flight bags made for iPad
The iPad is changing the way pilots fly, and it’s also changing what they carry. Gone are the big binders of charts and the pages of documents. Many flight bag designers have reacted by introducing “iPad-friendly” bags built for tablets. Sporty’s popular Flight Gear collection was updated to a new modern design to be iPad-compatible, and MyGoFlight line of high tech flight bags continued to be popular.
Other accessory news
There were plenty of other accessories in 2013 that were either made for the iPad or designed to work with it. Here’s a sample of stories we covered in 2013:
- Garmin released the new D2 Watch, which includes a GPS, moving map display, barometric altimeter and more. Best of all it works in concert with the Garmin Pilot iPad app.
- Garmin’s second big product release was the VIRB action camera, which also includes a GPS. Garmin announced that iPhone and iPad apps will be coming soon to control and frame shots with the camera.
- After years of searching, we finally came across an anti-glare filter that actually worked. While no filter completely eliminates glare from the iPad’s glass screen, this one significantly improves the viewing experience in direct sunlight.
- Google Glass announced a faster and more reliable version of its futuristic-looking eyewear, available to the public in 2014. We took a look at it and considered the possibilities it has for aviation.
- The iPad’s battery has proven to be very dependable. Some want extra piece of mind though, and for that we introduced the ultimate battery backup for pilots. It contains four 2 amp USB ports, one 110v wall style plug, and one 12V cigarette-style plug.
Read all our articles about iPad accessories.