Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The AnywhereMap saga - Part 1

A quick quiz: what’s the biggest flying challenge when moving from a 100 knot trainer to a 160 knot speed machine like an RV-6? To me, the answer is simple: weather. At 160 knots, weather just happens faster. You’re making longer trips, spending more time at the destination, and in general dealing with a lot more weather systems on any given trip. I’ve always been a weather sissy, and more often than not stayed home or restricted my flying to the local area if there was any forecast at all of adverse weather later in the day. The weather may look great in the morning, but an afternoon forecast showing possible rain or other aviation unfriendly weather phenomena was enough to either keep me on the ground, or change my destination.

That plan works fine if you’re planning the outbound leg of a trip, but eventually you’re bound to find yourself hundreds of miles from home looking for a way to get back. One of those days happened to me last year at Oshkosh. I had checked out of the dorm room, and even if I could have arranged for another night there, I really didn’t want to. The Oshkosh weather was fine, but a look at the enroute forecasts indicated that there might be some messy stuff as I got near Indiana. Sure enough, a few short hours later I was on the ground at a desolate country airport calling home on the cell phone to get a weather-out-the-window observation. I had run into a huge wall of cloud that I couldn’t fly under, and was reluctant to fly over without knowing how far it would be before I could see the ground again. Arriving over Columbus with nearly dry tanks and nothing to see below me for hundreds of square miles but solid undercast was obviously not desirable, so I made a quick 180 and landed at the nearest runway the GPS could find.

All of that turned out well, but it would have been a lot less stressful if I could have checked the weather while still in flight. I certainly could have used the comm radio and received a weather briefing from a Flight Service Station, but there are times when a verbal description of weather conditions that references a bunch of ground-based locations I’ve never heard of proves the adage that a picture is worth 1000 words. Until relatively recently, though, the verbal description was all that was available to little planes like mine. Jets and high-end piston twins have the ability to carry the weight of weather radar, and the owner/operators of that type of plane usually have the financial wherewithal to afford such expensive gadgetry. That said, even airborne weather radar has limitations. Most weather radars do a pretty good job of showing what’s out there in front of the plane, but can’t tell much beyond that. They simply can’t provide the “big picture” that allows for a complete view of the weather situation.

All of that started changing with the advent of XM satellite-based radio. Some clever marketroid or engineer realized that more than audio data can be transmitted by the satellites, and came across the brilliant idea of sending weather information through one of the channels. As is usual with new technologies like this, the early adopters paid a princely sum for the privilege of receiving national NEXRAD radar data and other extremely useful tidbits of information. The big price breakthrough for small airplane pilots came with the Garmin GPS 396, a moving-map GPS that displayed weather data received from the XM satellites. At a list price of $2,495, though, it was still out of reach for quite a few people, myself included. Fortunately, the enormous demand for the Garmin 396 did not go unnoticed by Garmin’s competitors, and lower cost solutions followed accordingly.

One of my goals at Oshkosh this year was to evaluate and possibly purchase a lower-cost alternative to the Garmin 396. Cost was not the only driver of this goal, however. My RV-6 is relatively space constrained when it comes to adding gadgets to the panel, and I didn’t want to remove anything that I already had to make room for the new display. I have a Garmin 295 GPS mounted to the canopy glare shield and it could have been removed and replaced with a 396, but after visualizing the way I intended to use the weather reporting box I decided against that. I typically use the 295 for close in navigation, usually at a range of 10 – 15 miles. At that close range, I’d be right in the weather before I saw it coming. Shifting back and forth between ranges is a distraction, so my idea was to have two displays: the 295 handling the close in navigation duties, and the weather display set to a 50 – 75 mile range to allow for a bigger picture view of the weather surrounding me. Mounting a 396 anywhere else in the cockpit without having it obstruct my view of other instruments or being too far out of reach to use conveniently just wasn’t possible.

Enter the AnywhereMap. To be 100% accurate, AnywhereMap is a piece of software that runs on a variety of platforms. With Garmin, there is certainly software involved, but it is indistinguishable and inseparable from the hardware platform. It’s all included in one box. With AnywhereMap, you have a choice of hardware ranging from a small Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) to a tablet computer the size of a sheet of 8.5 x 11” paper. Given the space limitations of the RV-6 and my aversion to high dollar cost, my choice was obvious – I elected to buy a PDA-based system. The PDA hardware, of course, does not have built-in GPS or XM Wx capability like the Garmin does, so those are separate components. That’s a huge benefit to the space-constrained buyer in that it allows the system components to be spread out as needed. With the AnywhereMap package, there are three major components: the PDA, the GPS receiver, and the XM Wx receiver.

The PDA is the display unit, and is small enough that I could find room for it in the already crowded airplane. In square inches, it’s not much larger than a dollar bill. The GPS receiver is also quite small, being about the size of a fortune cookie. The Wx box is itself comprised to two components: a very small antenna and a circular box with a diameter similar to a compact disk, and a height of about an inch. The Wx box can be mounted anywhere and is attached to its antenna with a very thin wire.

All three components require power, but only two of them have internal batteries. The Wx box does not come with its own battery, but one is available as an option. If all three components were running from their own batteries, the only wire in the entire system would be the one that goes from the Wx box to its antenna. This arrangement would be perfect for pilots that have to share an airplane; they could set the entire system up in any airplane in just a few minutes. I plan on wiring my system to aircraft power, though, so I didn’t purchase the optional battery pack for the Wx box. The system comes with a 12V power adapter that fits into a cigarette lighter plug and provides power for all three components. It can accept DC voltage from 12 V to 28 V, so there’s no requirement to choose one or the other flavor of electricity, which is again a boon to those that can’t easily predict which voltage they will be using.

The components communicate with each other using the Bluetooth wireless technology which helps to reduce the number of wires running back and forth in the cockpit. This was my first exposure to Bluetooth, and I’m here to tell ya, it’s very, very cool. Without the need to run wires between all of the components, it’s much easier to find places to put them all. In my case, though, I don’t fully benefit from that since I want to wire the power cords into the airplane. Still, two or three less cables is a good thing and it will reduce the effort involved in routing the wires.

Naturally, I couldn’t wait to power up the system and see how it works. As luck would have it, I was faced with a 9 hour car ride home from Oshkosh, so I had plenty of time to fiddle with it. I’d like to say it worked right out of the box, but it didn’t. I powered everything up as per the included directions but succeeded only in receiving weather data. The GPS wouldn’t establish communications with the PDA.

Once I got home and was able to access AnywhereMap’s web site, the cause of the issue became obvious. Because of the ability of the software to run on any compliant PDA and the normal capability growth of newer PDAs over time, a switch had been made to the PDA included with the system from a Hewlitt-Packard PDA to a Dell PDA. The requirements for configuring the Bluetooth devices and PDA had subtly changed as a result, and it was a simple matter to make the required changes. New printed documentation will almost assuredly soon be included in the new Dell based packages to alleviate the start-up issues I had.

This first interaction with the support web site was very positive, and further exploration of the documentation available on the site further increased my positive feelings towards AnywhereMap’s customer support and documentation. There is a collection of multimedia “how-to” topics available free to anyone that’s interested, and I found them very useful in getting to learn the somewhat complex software. Note that I mean “complex” in a good way – since I was primarily interested in the weather aspects I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the package. I was quickly impressed by the depth of the flight planning and management aspects of the package and started to wonder if I might end up using this system for far more than simple weather reporting. That’s for later, though, since I still hadn’t used the system in the airplane.

Before going to the trouble of permanently mounting the system in the airplane, I decided to try it out with the temporary installation that would be used by someone that shared an airplane. It’s a very simple thing to do: stick the hefty suction-cup mount to something nice and flat, put the power plug in the socket, turn on the GPS unit, and start the PDA. Well, I should say it should have been a very simple thing to do, but as is usual (for me, anyway) with these kinds of things, my efforts to save later frustration led to early frustration. I found that I just couldn’t get the Wx box to communicate with the PDA when everything was installed in the airplane. I took it all out, installed it in the car, and everything worked fine. I put it all back in the plane, and it still couldn’t connect with the Wx box. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “I’ve gotten myself into a $1,500 lemon.”

I immediately checked on the return policy and found that as per the AnywhereMap web site, I had 30 days to return the unit but I’d have to pay a 10% restocking fee. With that in mind, I contacted AnywhereMap customer service via their web-based chat feature, fully intending to threaten the representative with reams of negative publicity if they couldn’t get the system working but still insisted on hammering me with what amounted to a $150 fine. Fortunately that proved unnecessary. The service rep was able to explain what the problem was after asking a series of simple questions. It turns out that the Wx box is very susceptible to power spikes, and by connecting it to the cigarette lighter power port, which gets power as soon as the master switch is turned on, I was slamming the Wx box with the power spikes incumbent with starting the engine. By the time I got around to starting the PDA, the Wx box’s brains were scrambled to such a degree that it couldn’t communicate with the PDA. With that in mind, I tried starting the engine and then plugging in the weather box. Within minutes I was looking at a great big green and yellow weather blob just 25 miles south of the airport. Wow, is that ever cool! Lesson learned - when I wire the unit into the airplane bus, I will select a circuit that is switched by the avionics master switch so the Wx box doesn’t see power until after the engine is running.

It's also important to note that AnywhereMap also provides an internet forum for support issues. Prior to contacting the "offical" customer service, I posted a description of the problems I was having to the forum, and had three replies within an hour. The replies I received tracked very closely with the information provided by the customer service rep, so I actually had two very good support options. I can't help but contrast this with my experience with Garmin tech support, which was essentially "send us the unit and $250 dollars." The problem I had with the Garmin unit was resolved by a Google search that revealed the apparently top-secret reboot code for the unit, and I was left wondering how people would react if they had to pay Microsoft $250 to receive the "CTRL-ALT-DEL" code. I know how I reacted - I was pissed off! To be honest, this was the other reason that my search for in-airplane weather reporting units drove me to look for a non-Garmin option.

I have not yet used the system in flight, so that will be the topic of a later posting. For now, excitement is running high, and I can already see how having the capability of seeing the weather picture in flight is going to make a substantial change in the way I fly.

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