Thursday, June 25, 2009
Poor Man's EFB
In my continuing quest to find a low-cost, electronic solution to displaying aviation charts, I acquired and tested a small notebook computer and several on-line services (some of them free) that provide charts and procedures in electronic format. In this installment I'll look at the feasibility of acquiring and displaying various charts while in flight using a newly acquired Dell Mini 9. Though this Dell model was recently discontinued, other similar models are still available. I acquired this computer used with a 16 gigabyte solid-state disk drive and 1 GB of RAM. I upgraded the RAM to 2 GB for a nominal cost and so far I've found the drive has plenty of space to store the basics charts I need.
Before embarking on this experiment, I took the two basic publications I purchase regularly and weighed them on a scale. The Northern California Terminal Procedures SW-2 and the Southwest Airport/Facility Directory together weigh in at a pound and a half.
The Dell Mini 9 is a smidge heavier at just over two pounds, but those few ounces pack a lot of punch. The Dell has the potential to store many more charts than I could ever fit in my flight bag and on the ground it can be used to check weather, surf the net, send email and all the other stuff a full-blown computer can do when wireless access is available. The keyboard is cramped, but did I mention I was on a budget? I think I did ...
You can purchase and download VFR, low-altitude IFR, and high-altitude IFR charts on-line from NACO for a fraction of the cost of printed charts: $1.60 versus $4 to $9 for a paper chart.
Using MacGPS Pro with an old, hand-held Garmin GPS providing position data over an USB interface, I found I could display a geo-referenced position on a VFR sectional quite easily. The FAA's charting division ships the VFR charts in raster format with a separate calibration file and MacGPS Pro was able to open and georeference these charts without a problem. The physical hardware setup is cumbersome and could be made cleaner by acquiring a small Bluetooth GPS receiver, but again ... the budget.
Low-altitude en route IFR charts are a different story since the FAA decided to package these as PDF files with no geo-reference calibration provided. PDF files!? What's more, the orientation of some of the PDF charts (like L1/L2) is landscape with North being shown on the right side instead of the top. I was able to use GraphicConverter to import the PDF, rotate it 90˚ clockwise, save it as a high-resolution PICT file, and import it into MacGPS Pro, but I can't (as of this writing) get the manual chart calibration process in MacGPS Pro to work quite right for geo-referencing. It's almost as if the FAA doesn't want anyone using these charts in the very way I'm trying to use them.
There is better news to report on the terminal procedures front because there are at least four ways to get terminal procedures in PDF format and the good news is that all of them are free! I didn't investigate geo-referencing these charts, I just want to display the procedures.
A popular way to get terminal procedures is to download them from NACO at no charge, a service that has been available for several years. The bad news is that you must downlead each procedure one at a time since they come as separate PDF files. In fact, some SIDs and STARs are two page affairs and they must be downloaded as separate files. Our tax dollars at work! Downloading each procedure in advance and storing them as separate files is a hassle, but take heart because there are other options.
Visit downloadplates, download the free Perl script and you can acquire all the procedures you want from the NACO site - automatically. The script provides a variety of features for controlling which procedures are downloaded. You can download all procedures or by just by a region or state. I was able to download all of California's procedures in about an hour so this is something you want to run overnight or when you're not in a rush. And if you update every cycle, the downloadplates script can be used to download only the procedures that have been changed or added.
The downloadplates package may be best suited to nerdy, programmer types. If you are a Windows user, you'll likely need to download a Perl environment, tweak your PATH variable, and use a command line interface to run the script. If you are a Mac OS X user, you already have Perl built-in and the latest release of the script now runs seamlessly under Mac OS X. (It was a simple matter of having the script recognize the OS being used and invoke curl instead of wget - Thanks Mike for incorporating the fix!) You'll have to open a terminal window to run the script and it helps to know a bit about C shell or Bourne shell. The resulting files are downloaded into appropriately named folders for each airport and the result is that you use your file system to navigate through a hierarchy of folders to find a particular procedure.
Two sites NACOmatic and PDFPlates, provide groupings of multiple NACO procedures into a single PDF file. Nacomatic also provides the Airport/Facility Directories as PDF files. The NACOmatic terminal procedures PDF for California was about 280 Mb and took less than 30 minutes to download. The PDFPlates PDF for Volume SW-2 (Northern California) was about 134Mb and took about 18 minutes to download. The NACOMatic California A/FD file was about 18Mb and only took a few minutes to download. These times are all based on basic AT&T DSL speeds.
Both NACOmatic and PDFPlates provide bookmarks that help you locate the airport and procedure you want. I'm told that there were some issues with bookmarks and the Kindle DX, but that appears to have been solved. I've yet to get my hands on a Kindle. Since I'm using Acrobat Reader on the Dell Mini 9 and it has bookmark support, my beef is in how the bookmarks are designed for both of theses packages. I've sent suggestions to the owners of both sites and look forward to seeing a different bookmark scheme implemented in a future versions.
And remember that these are free services: If you decide to use one of these products, don't be a blogosphere deadbeat - make a donation, dammit!
Here's how NACOmatic's A/FD PDF looks on the Dell Mini 9 in Acrobat Reader.
Here's how NACOmatic's TPP PDF looks on the Dell Mini 9 in Acrobat Reader (I rotate the page counter-clockwise to make a full page procedure readable in the cockpit).
This is PDFPlates' TPP PDF on the Dell Mini 9 in Acrobat Reader.
Here's a sample PDF I distilled for just Oakland to show what I think would be a more useful bookmark schema.
So how do these procedures display on the Dell Mini 9 in the cockpit? One issue is that the Dell Mini 9's form factor is not ideal for cockpit use. The screen won't fold open all the way from the keyboard, but I found I could set the machine in my lap like an open book. This photo doesn't do justice at all to the display. With my reading glasses on and my 50-plus year old eyes, I found the Dell Mini 9's screen readable in a low-wing aircraft on a sunny day. Your mileage may vary. My preference is to rotate the page display 90˚ counter-clockwise and minimize bookmarks once I've located the procedure I need to see.
To see how operable the Dell Mini 9 would be in flight, I tried this simple test on several occasions: A pilot I was instructing and I both looked up information on an airport in the A/FD. He used his paper A/FD (which had not been bookmarked) and I used NACOmatic's PDF version of the A/FD. I found the airport data first in every case. It wasn't child's play, but I think for me it is workable. I tried the same test with instrument approach procedures and again, I always seemed to win race - though sometimes not by much.
Several pilots have asked me if I'd rely on my poor man's EFB in flight without any paper backup. My answer is a qualified "yes." I think I'd still carry paper VFR charts, since they don't take up much space and they are relatively cheap. As for the A/FD, I'm comfortable relying on the Dell Mini 9 to display the PDF version. The same goes for terminal procedures, though I will continue to print a few frequently used terminal procedures and keep those in my kneeboard. The Dell Mini 9's battery life is well over 3 hours if close it when I don't need it (which puts it to sleep). I could acquire a cigarette-lighter power adapter for $15, but that doesn't seem necessary at the moment. And last but not least, the total cost for my setup? A few hours of set-up and research time and $300 in hardware. While my setup may not be considered a full-fledged EFB, it cost a tenth of what some set-ups cost. What's more, I don't have any subscription fees (unless you count the electronic VFR and IFR charts). Not too shabby for a few days of work.