The new Appareo Stratus is the result of a combined effort between Appareo Systems, ForeFlight LLC and Sportys Pilot Shop. Appareo Photo
Im not going to insult you by opening with long and lofty prose about how great the Apple iPad has turned out to be for many cockpit functions. Chances are good that you are already using an iPad for some of your aviating or are at least well aware of its incredible capabilities (see p.86, Vertical, Oct-Nov-2011) and the list of applications (apps) that seems to be growing faster than kudzu on a North Carolina hill.
When I purchased my iPad over a year and a half ago, it was for the primarily purpose of eliminating the pile of publications I needed to carry for both my personal helicopter and airplane operations. And that objective was met perfectly and inexpensively with an app called SkyCharts Pro.
Yes, I was aware of what has since become one of the most popular of aviation apps ForeFlight Mobile and its relatively inexpensive subscription fees versus the cost of paper pubs. Over time, other, similar apps have arrived on the scene with their own nuances intended make them stand out amongst the others. But, for me, shifting the charts from paper to iPad and doing the rest as usual with the avionics that were in the various aircraft panels I was flying worked just fine. From the custom-mounted Garmin GPSMap 496 mini multi-function display with XM WX Satellite Weather in a Robinson R22, to the Garmin GNS 430W with moving maps and down-linked weather in other aircraft I fly, situational awareness was aplenty. Plus, I didnt have to mess with various attachments for better iPad GPS reception.
So, although it seems like I may be an old fart who resists new technology, Im actually an old fart who loves new technology but requires just a little more of a push to adopt something new when the current solution is serving me well. Such was the case with ForeFlight and the Appareo Stratus.
Introduced about a year ago, Stratus is the result of a combined effort between Appareo Systems, a company that specializes in flight data monitoring and analysis, flight logistics, and inertial-navigation-system/GPS solutions; ForeFlight LLC, creators of ForeFlight Mobile, one of the most popular flight planning and execution applications for the iPad (and it works on the iPhone, too); and the iconic Sportys Pilot Shop. Appareo designed and built the hardware, while ForeFlight upgraded and revised its app to suit this new solution. Finally, Sportys completed the team by doing the testing and taking charge of the marketing and sales (you can only get Stratus through Sportys).
Stratus utilizes Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) technology, which is the foundation for the United States Federal Aviation Administrations (FAAs) NextGen air traffic control (ATC) system for aircraft tracking and locating. Briefly, ADS-B is a system of ground-based stations to which appropriately equipped aircraft automatically transmit without interrogation from ATC or another aircraft their GNSS (global navigation satellite system) derived position, and other details such as speed, and rate of climb or descent, which the system then relays to ATC. Dependent means it is totally dependent on the aircrafts GPS or nav systems, rather than ATC radar facilities for tracking. The surveillance part means the system knows your aircraft type, registration number, altitude, heading and speed. Finally, broadcast means that all this information is transmitted to the ever-expanding network of ground-based stations in excess of 700 right now plus any and all aircraft equipped to receive it, and to satellite communication transceivers.
But, ADS-B is far more than just a location-oriented, ATC system. What I described above are the components of whats known as ADS-B out meaning that the aircraft is set up for outbound information. And this is what the FAA has stated will be mandatory by 2020. However, ADS-B was actually designed to work in both directions. Although not required by the FAA, the ADS-B in component is huge for cockpit information and situational awareness, especially related to traffic and weather. Its also free, and its this capability that feeds Stratus.
I was recently offered the opportunity to test Stratus over a period of a couple of months, which I readily accepted. You see, I had been reading about how various users were enjoying the Stratus solution but in their airplanes, up high, where the line-of-sight ADS-B system was primarily intended to work. As such, I wanted to know how this offering worked down low, where we rotor-heads operate.
The Stratus receiver unit is a box measuring roughly four-by-six-by-one inches, making it easy to transport to and from the aircraft, and find a convenient place to put it in the aircraft. The only other component you need to use it is your iPad, with the ForeFlight Mobile app loaded. Thats it. No wires. The Stratus receiver transmits all the needed information to the iPad via Wi-Fi. Since I hate a cockpit full of spaghetti, score one already for Stratus.
While I was waiting for the test unit to arrive, I downloaded ForeFlight Mobile to my iPad, played with it a little bit, and used it while flying a Cessna 310 from Texas to North Carolina. As I expected, its an awesome app and was easy to learn.
When the Stratus arrived, the first task was to charge the battery. Then it was time to link it up with the iPad and ForeFlight Mobile. It was so easy its hardly worth mentioning. Next, I studied the pilots guide, which was quite thin. Turns out, Appareo didnt skimp on the manual. Rather, its so intuitive and theres so little for the pilot to know or do, a big manual is not needed. One important feature of the manual, however, is the chart that shows the various services available and update intervals for each (see Figure 1).
There was also a chart that detailed each of the four different types of ADS-B ground stations (surface, low-altitude, medium-altitude, and high-altitude) and the associated products and respective ranges for each (see Figure 2). For helicopter operations, I was obviously most interested in the surface and low-altitude specifications. However, I didnt let that consume me while flying. I just wanted to turn it on, see how it worked and not worry about which type of station I was near.
The Appareo website also has a map of ADS-B station coverage (see Figure 3): good information to know before you launch. As you can see, there are some serious service gaps mostly in the Mountain States and the southern parts of the Central Plains which should be closed by the end of 2013. For my southeastern U.S. location, North Carolina, coverage didnt look to be an issue.
The big test was planned during a two-day, six-hour, round-trip flight in an R22 from my home roughly 50 miles north of Charlotte, N.C., to Savannah, Ga. Since my wife would occupy my desk for this trip, she was tasked with holding the iPad. Although Appareo says to place the Stratus receiver on top of the aircraft glare shield (more fixed-wing bias), I had no intention of doing so. I didnt like the idea of baking the unit in the low-altitude heat. And, I also noted the potential for it to vibrate off the top of the panel. So, for the outbound trip, we placed it between the co-pilot seat and cabin door area reserved for the left-side collective, which was removed. This snug and safe position also allowed my wife to continuously monitor the receiver indications to tell me when we were and werent receiving a signal. For our return trip, I placed the receiver in the under-seat storage compartment, with no ill effects on reception.
If youre wondering about battery life, Appareo says the battery will power the unit for up to eight hours. As such, I wasnt expecting any rundown on my trip. Theres also an accessory power adaptor available to run the unit from the aircrafts power.
Since ADS-B is a ground-station-based system, I was really anxious to find out how well the Stratus would work for a trip where cruise altitudes would be no more than 1,000 feet above ground level (AGL). Well, it turned out that shortly after departing my home helipad, passing through only 400 feet AGL, my wife reported we were already receiving a signal. Five minutes later, we were receiving weather updates for the route. The XM weather for my Garmin 496 had still not jumped on line yet.
As luck would have it, even though all the reporting stations surrounding our location and intended first leg were showing decent visual-flight-rules conditions, one area had no reporting, and sure enough the ceiling in that area was well below my personal minimums. We landed at a small, unattended grass strip to wait it out. (Even with all this technology, the old-fashioned eyeball is what worked.) Since we had lost the ADS-B signal on short final, I was relying on the iPads 3G mobile connection to get my updates from ForeFlight, which were updating faster than the XM on my 496. After an hour had passed and the surrounding reports had revealed much improved conditions, we launched again.
As we progressed south and east of Charlotte and away from the major populated areas, I was impressed at how consistent the signal was to the Stratus. At 750 feet above nothing but farms and trees, the receiver was working quite well. It finally dropped off line at about 350 feet AGL, on a final approach to a fuel stop in Orangeburg, S.C. the middle of nowhere. And sure enough, we were climbing through 400 feet AGL after fueling and the signal returned.
In addition to temporary flight restrictions and Notams, there is no shortage of weather products from ADS-B. You can get graphical Metars and TAFs, text weather, winds and temperature aloft, Airmets and Sigmets, Pireps, and, of course, the big daddy Nexrad weather.
Stratus ADS-B generated Nexrad (Next Generation Radar) weather is quite good. Although, compared side-by-side with XM, as I saw it on my test flights, the resolution wasnt as good as the XMs this was most obvious when comparing it to the Nexrad display on a Garmin GMX 200 multi-function display, but less obvious on the Garmin 496. It also wasnt as good as the resolution ForeFlight Mobile itself provided when the iPad was on the ground and getting its signal from other Wi-Fi or cellular sources. For the most part, the Nexrad presentations were in little blocks. Certain presentations are supposed to be in higher resolution, especially those from certain stations, but I never saw that. (Also, with some stations, you wont always be able to see the national picture.) However, the resolution really wasnt a problem, even when flying my fixed-wing tests in a 180-knot twin on longer trips. I saw what I needed to in plenty of time for strategic decisions around summer thunderstorms (neither XM nor Stratus should be used for in-tight, close tactical flying around severe weather).
Of course, resolution aside, the really nice plus I found with the Stratus system was that the ForeFlight screen was up and running with updated information far sooner than the XM on my 496 in the R22 or the Cessna 310, and on a GMX 200 fed by an airframe-mounted Garmin GDL-69A remote datalink receiver in a turbine helicopter.
The Sum Up
The thing about Stratus is that, in and of itself, its simple, easy to use, works as advertised, and is as cumbersome-free to handle as you can get. The decision whether or not to use the Stratus is, in my mind at least, more related to your willingness or desire to have your weather and flight information platform dependent on the iPad/iPhone and ForeFlight Mobile app, instead of an avionics unit portable or otherwise.
Taking full advantage of Stratus for me meant incorporating the iPad far more into my flight operations than I was previously accustomed to and getting to know ForeFlight Mobile. In the R22, this required a bit more effort than using the special mount for my 496, which is in easy reach below the standard compass. There were far more head-down operations when dealing with the iPad and ForeFlight than using the 496, especially early on while I was still learning the ropes.
Im sure you can all imagine the operational challenges of glare on the iPad screen, coupled with accidental taps experienced in turbulence and having to correct for those screen excursions. Down low with no autopilot in a light helicopter is not the easiest or safest situation in which to spend a lot of time with ones head down fiddling with a device.
However, as I became more proficient with ForeFlight, I developed some operational techniques to take advantage of the app and Stratus in the R22 that minimized the need to mess with the iPad screen. In those helicopters with autopilots, or where you have crew help, Stratus use should be a breeze. Not only that, ForeFlight Mobile can be placed on an iPhone. And, although the screen is certainly smaller, you can get the advantages of ADS-B in a more manageable container especially when you incorporate one of the many neat aftermarket mounts available.
In fact, during this testing period, I finally gave in and exchanged my old cell phone for an iPhone 4S and mounted the unit on the control column of my Cessna 310, right along side the Garmin 496. Although the screen is a little smaller than the 496, I was quite amazed at how useful the Stratus can be when combined with just the iPhone. And the Nexrad resolution was quite comparable to the 496. For big picture weather, it was spot on.
The bottom line for me is that Stratus is an excellent product. The cost from Sportys is $799 US plus shipping (its currently only available in the U.S. due to ADS-B system differences in other countries). Consider how much bang for the buck this is. But, if you are still inclined to complain, consider that my XM Aviator Lite subscription the cheapest XM option available costs me around $35 a month plus the original activation fee. ADS-B is free. So, you break even in just over 21 months. And, Aviator Lite doesnt offer all the products that Stratus does.
Also, like many of you, Im sure, I regularly fly a number of different aircraft, which until now has meant dragging my 496 with antenna, cable and power cord, and the XM receiver and cable with me on every trip. The iPad/iPhone and little Stratus receiver, neither with any wires, replaces all this. Plus, the Stratus has its own incredibly precise internal WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) GPS, which negates the need for that add-on option to the iPad.
Forced to make a choice of only one solution, Id probably go with the Stratus and iPad/iPhone combination. But after flying the unit, I decided the cost was reasonable enough to have both: the 496 with XM will stay in my personal aircraft, and the iPad and/or iPhone, Stratus and ForeFlight will go with me not only when flying my personal aircraft, but in everything, and everywhere, else. Its the best of both worlds and it occupies just a small part of a new flight bag thats not even a third of the size of what I used to have to carry just to handle charts.
Guy R. Maher is a 16,000-hour dual-rated pilot and flight instructor for helicopter, airplane andinstrument ratings. He is an EMS pilot flying an IFR Eurocopter EC135 in North Carolina. In addition tobeing a FAASTeam representative, he is frequently called upon to provide consultation on aircraft sales, operational, and safety issues, and to provide testimony for legal proceedings. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org