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Many new cars now come with remote access capabilities that make it easy to start your Chevrolet’s engine or check your Tesla’s battery level from anywhere, using nothing more than a smartphone app and an LTE connection. Garmin is hoping to bring that same convenience to aviation with its new PlaneSync system, a completely new approach to database updates and avionics connectivity. This system, which combines permanently-installed hardware, wireless subscriptions, and tablet apps, can keep an airplane permanently connected—even when it’s parked in a hangar.
PlaneSync is coming in fall 2023, but we’ve been testing an early version of it for the last three months in a 2006 Cirrus with a retrofit Garmin glass cockpit. Overall, we’ve found it to be incredibly useful. Here’s how it works.
What can it do?
PlaneSync is really a combination of features with a focus on convenience, making it easier to keep your panel updated and keep it connected to portable devices. There are four main capabilities:
Remote aircraft status. This allows pilots to “wake up” the airplane to check database status, fuel level, oil temperature, battery voltage, and more. It uses a built-in LTE radio in the airplane (just like your cell phone) so it can connect from almost anywhere, but it will not work in flight.
Simplified database updates. This remains a pain point for owners of modern glass cockpits, as updating all the databases (there are at least four most pilots keep updated) on all the screens (there are five in the Cirrus) can be a time-consuming process. The Garmin Pilot app offers a Database Concierge service, but we’ve found this to be slow and occasionally buggy. With PlaneSync it’s essentially automatic: the airplane checks every night for new charts and downloads them wirelessly if needed.
Flight Stream 510 replacement. The new GDL 60 (see below) becomes the new connection point in flight. Connect your iPad to stream SiriusXM or ADS-B weather, traffic, and AHRS data, plus sync flight plans from the panel.
Engine/flight log transfer. This feature is coming in 2024, and will make it much easier to access both AHRS data and EIS data remotely. If you like to have detailed logbook entries complete with speed and altitude data, or if you share engine data with a mechanic, this should be a nice upgrade over the current SD card method.
To enable all the PlaneSync features, you’ll need some new hardware and a new wireless subscription, but it’s also important to note that not all Garmin avionics are compatible. Specifically, here’s what you’ll need in addition to the regular avionics database subscription you already have:
- Garmin GDL 60. This is a new, remote-mounted box that connects your panel avionics to LTE or Wi-Fi networks, enabling remote access. This box retails for about $4000 and takes roughly a week to install, depending on your avionics.
- LTE subscription. The GDL 60 can connect to WiFi, so if your hangar has that already you can quickly do database updates. But to enable remote aircraft status, you’ll need a Garmin PlaneSync LTE subscription. Wi-Fi only plans are $10/month and LTE plans are $30/month (North America).
- Garmin Pilot app. This is the main interface for PlaneSync, and you’ll notice a new Aircraft page when configured. This shows database expiration dates and is where you go for remote aircraft status. Note that ForeFlight app support is coming at some point, but we would assume it will be limited, perhaps to flight plan sync and in-flight weather streaming.
- GTN Xi navigator. The latest generation of Garmin’s bestselling GPS/NAV/COM avionics, this is what the GDL 60 connects to and is where the databases live. For remote engine data (fuel level, battery voltage), you’ll need a Garmin EIS and for detailed flight logging you’ll need a Garmin TXi primary flight display.
That list means an older panel with non-Xi GTNs or a GNS 530W won’t work, so the Xi upgrade may be worth considering if you’ve been on the fence. Even if you don’t have a full Garmin glass cockpit, a GDL 60 plus a GTN 750Xi would enable easier database updates and in-flight weather streaming.
Sporty’s avionics shop installed the GDL 60 in our Cirrus SR22 with dual Garmin TXi displays, dual Garmin GTN 750Xi navigators, a Garmin GI-275 backup instrument, and a GDL 69A SiriusXM receiver. Next we updated Garmin Pilot and signed up for a PlaneSync subscription. Then it was off to the races.
The first feature we wanted to test was the new database update process. As we’ve written previously, keeping a modern avionics suite updated and connected to your portable devices can be a major pain point. Hence your $100,000 panel often relies on a $10 SD card in order to stay legal.
Well, no more. With PlaneSync, the GDL 60 turns on every day at a time you choose (we picked 3am) and checks for updates. If it doesn’t find any, it turns back off; if there are new databases it automatically downloads them.
The last step in the process is to turn on all the avionics—either in the hangar or as you begin your next flight—and sync all those new databases from the GDL 60 to your avionics. In our case, that meant two GTN 750Xis, two TXi displays, and a GI-275. This takes just a few minutes, much faster than the old Database Concierge method, thanks to new software on the GTNs that enables 100Mbps transfer speeds. You can monitor the progress on each individual screen but no pilot input is required.
Our hangar does not have Wi-Fi, so we depended on the GDL 60’s LTE radio for database downloads and we were pleasantly surprised. Even in a metal t-hangar, which has a nasty habit of blocking outside signals, we never had a problem connecting. This will obviously depend on local network coverage (Garmin has a map here), and it may have been helped in our case by the composite airframe on the Cirrus. If LTE connectivity doesn’t work, installing an inexpensive WiFi system at the hangar would be a good option.
The GDL 60 does use battery power to download databases, but there’s a setting to adjust how much battery you want to allocate towards this process. We leave the Cirrus plugged into a BatteryMinder (a great idea for battery longevity, with or without PlaneSync), so we’re comfortable being pretty aggressive. If you don’t use a battery conditioner or your battery is weak, you can set the level higher. Garmin says the system uses about 14 watt-hours, and we can report that we never had any issues with battery life.
In short, Garmin has finally fixed the database update hassle. By the third update cycle, we had forgotten about it. We jumped in the Cirrus for a flight and realized the airplane had downloaded new databases while we were sleeping. In about 45 seconds these had been pushed from the GDL 60 to all the screens and had rebooted. We taxied out and took off, while the last database updates (the FliteCharts database is the largest and takes the longest) finished in flight. If you wanted to be proactive, you could check the databases via the Remote Aircraft Status feature in Garmin Pilot on the day new charts become effective. But as we learned, if you forget to do that the airplane will likely handle it for you. This is a major upgrade.
There’s one other benefit to this upgraded database update process: you can easily stay current while you travel. If you’ve ever had a weeklong trip that straddled a new effective date, you may have experienced the challenges of database updates on the road. With PlaneSync this would be a non-event.
While the new database update process was the most impressive part of PlaneSync, we found the remote aircraft status feature to be surprisingly useful. With multiple pilots flying the airplane, it’s hard to know for sure how much fuel is in the tanks. Now, instead of driving out to the airport we can just tap on Garmin Pilot and do a live update from our phone or tablet. This is also useful in the winter: how cold is the oil this morning? Sorry, no remote air conditioning controls.
Remote aircraft status can even be displayed on the Garmin D2 Mach 1 smartwatch. We added a widget so swiping down on the main watch face shows fuel level, database status, and more. Hardly essential, but quite convenient.
Finally, the in-flight weather/traffic features are just the same as the Flight Stream 510 we used to fly with, and that’s a good thing. On a long cross country flight, we had continuously updated SiriusXM weather, ADS-B traffic, synthetic vision from the panel AHRS, and automatic flight plan sync on our iPad.
There is one minor difference: whereas the Flight Stream 510 was a Bluetooth connection, the GDL 60 connects by both Bluetooth and WiFi to provide more bandwidth for data (just remember to do Bluetooth first in iOS Settings, then connect to WiFi in the Garmin Pilot app).
Overall, PlaneSync is an impressive product. While it doesn’t add a radically new capability, it significantly reduces workload and makes airplane ownership simpler. Garmin seems to have really listened to pilots about their pain points and systematically addressed them. Our highest praise is that it just works.