Wednesday, June 17, 2009

More EFB Musing

My quest for a relatively inexpensive electronic flight bag continues with this review of the FAA Charting Division's d-TPP Flight Java application for Windows. I'll discuss the installation process and the application's features, advantages, and drawbacks.

One problem right off the bat is that the d-TPP Java application has been designed only to run under Windows. Another problem is that it uses a third-party PDF viewer that might have some bugs, enough to cause the developer to see fit to include a warning with the product. And one reader commented in my last posting that this software appears have some licensing issues. A bit of a messy start, but pressing on ...

I performed this install on Windows XP running under VMware Fusion on my MacBook, but it should be the same on any Windoze machine. Plop the DVD into your drive and it should autorun, displaying a screen giving you the choice to run the browser-based version, install the java application, browse the DVD, or view the readme file.

Click on the Install d-TPP Flight option and you'll see more choices regarding Java. You can load the version of Java that comes on the DVD or download the latest and greatest. Preferring to live on the edge, I chose to download the latest and greatest version of Java.

Once Java was on-board I had to re-launch the DVD autorun to continue the installation - a minor annoyance. Then I saw three choices. I tried to use the custom install option, hoping to store the PDF chart repository on a USB thumb drive, but I couldn't get it work. The full install required 3.5 gigabytes of disk space. Good thing I recently upgraded my hard drive to 320GB!

After installing, I launched the application and noticed that the window wasn't sized correctly.

A simple solution was to use a cool VMware Fusion feature called unity mode, that lets you run a Windows application that appears just like any other Mac application. This allowed me to properly resize the window.

You can select an airport by entering it's three-character identifier in the field upper right. If you have a tablet computer that supports pen input, you can bring up a keypad and tap in the characters. All modern GPS units distinguish between airports and VORs that have the same name by using ICAO identifiers for airports, but in keeping with other FAA chart products the Java application doesn't use ICAO identifiers. This is really unfortunate and I suspect that the application's designer(s) was(were) handcuffed by the way the terminal procedure PDFs are stored. This should create an interesting bit of work for some programmer down the line.

When you access an airport's procedures, the airport diagram comes up by default. I resized the window and used one of the rotate buttons to rotate the diagram counter clockwise into a sort of landscape view. This could work nicely if you have a tablet PC that is sitting in your lap, but the other input buttons don't rotate - just the chart you're viewing.

You can also select the map view and then click on the state or territory you want to display a list of airports for that state or territory.

The procedures are intelligently categorized for each airport. The airport diagram is displayed by default with buttons for STARs, SIDs, and IAP (instrument approach procedures). If you select the SID or STAR option, tabs appear labeled with the first letter of the name of each procedure.

If you select an IAP, two sets of tabs appear. One set of tabs are labeled with the name of each available runway while the other tabs list the approach names. This is a very handy and concise arrangement that significantly reduces possible confusion in locating the correct chart for the correct runway. Nice job, NACO!

When you select the Takeoff Minimums (sic) and Obstacle Departure Procedures for an airport, you get all the airports for the region in what that airport is located. Unfortunately NACO's current documentation scheme doesn't provide a way to programmatically drill down to the text for a specific airport within a PDF: You must page through and manually locate it yourself.

There's even a negative view that should help preserve your night vision adaptation.

The d-TPP Java application includes a feature that lets you create a sequence of charts and this has a lot of potential. Let's say you're departing KBFI and you create a sequence that starts with the airport diagram, followed by a SID. Cool. Since you'll be arriving at KBUR, you create a sequence that starts with one or more STARs, followed by a series of possible approach procedures, and ending with the airport diagram. The problem is, when you change back to the departure airport, the sequence you originally created for that airport is not retained. In fact, anytime you change to a different airport, any sequence you may have created does not survive. Like I said, a good start but it needs work.

Even with these shortcomings, the d-TPP product provides a reasonable look-up and display capability for terminal procedures at a pretty reasonable price, especially if you already own a Windows-based notebook or tablet PC.

An issue with using d-TPP on my MacBook as an EFB has to do with the form factor and the screen/keyboard arrangement. A solution I hope to investigate is the ModBook: A MacBook with the screen and keyboard replaced by a Wacom drawing tablet in a custom aluminum case. You can supply your own MacBook to be modified or they'll provide all the hardware for a higher cost. You can still use a bluetooth keyboard with the modified computer, but in the air I think it would sit comfortably on my lap. It would weigh in at just over 5 pounds, but the modification also includes the addition of a built-in WAAS GPS receiver. I've read good reviews of the ModBook and look forward to having my MacBook converted. I'll also need to replace that new 320 GB SATA hard drive with a solid-state drive to be safely usable in the air at higher altitudes. I just need to earn a bit more money before I can embark on that experiment.

An alternative that some readers have suggested is the Kindle DX ebook reader, which can load and display PDFs. While the Kindle has a lot going for it -an incredible display, a reasonably low price, long battery life, and a great form factor - I'd personally rather have a full-featured computer for use on the ground at home, in the FBO, or at the hotel.

Another solution I've been playing with over the last two weeks is an inexpensive Dell Mini 9 with terminal procedures provided by and downloadplates. I'll cover these in my next installment.


Wirelizard said...

Your nacomatic link seems to be done wrong.

Americans are so spoilt - Nav Canada won't release 1/10th of the information the FAA/NACO/etc do for pilots in electronic form! No PDF approach plates for us - at least we can get the basic airport diagrams in PDF, which is useful even for us VFR pilots.

Regardless, interesting information on a DIY EFB setup. Yet another reason to add a Dell Mini9 to my 'eventually' list! Thanks!

John Ewing said...

Thanks for pointing out the broken link. It's been fixed ...