Miniaturized avionics are starting to proliferate among drones, and air taxis are likely next

The story of uAvionix illustrates the trend

Several years ago, according to Samsung, the processing power of an average smartphone surpassed that of the average laptop computer, as circuit makers created ever smaller microprocessors.

One sector was late to incorporate the smallest, most powerful microprocessors. “Miniaturization in aviation had fallen behind the curve, compared to other types of electronics,” says Ryan Braun, an electrical engineer and the managing director of crewed aviation for Montana-based uAvionix.

The 9-year-old avionics manufacturer is among those who are catching up. The word “crewed” in Braun’s title indicates two places where the company is focused: general aviation and the air taxi segment of the advanced air mobility marketplace.

The emphasis on passenger aircraft marks quite a switch, given that at the time of its founding in 2014, uAvionix focused on communications, navigation and surveillance technology for a variety or drones that weigh less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms) at takeoff to fit under FAA’s rule designating them as “small.”

Among the products the company currently sells to owners of general aviation aircraft and drones are radio units that receive or broadcast and receive the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) identity and location information that FAA requires most aircraft in U.S. airspace to transmit. The company has miniaturized those units for ease of installation and continues to explore ways to make the equipment even smaller.

“When we came into the market, there was nothing that said the word ‘ADS-B’ on it that was smaller than a toaster oven,” Braun says.

For the drones, the company has created ADS-B units the size of a thumb drives, each containing a single microchip. The devices are sold under the Ping brand.

The goal of all this is to “promote safety” by pioneering miniaturized “detect and avoid capability,” particularly as drones have proliferated and as the air taxi industry plans to add hundreds or thousands of new passenger aircraft to the skies above cities and suburbs.

Many of the company’s ADS-B units are sold as commercial off-the-shelf add-ons to factory-built aircraft. But uAvionix also sells to original equipment manufacturers that install the company’s technology on factory floors.

In addition to ADS-B, the company sells Remote ID transmitters that send real-time locations over Wi-Fi or cellular networks. This equipment is either factory installed by original equipment manufacturers or sold as after-factory add-ons.

To accommodate such markets, uAvionix has learned to design custom microprocessors and to package modern circuitry into the smallest, lightest units possible, notable for their efficient use of electric power, Braun says.

AAM industry players expect FAA to require ADS-B on anything with people on board, including electric air taxis. “We are actively involved in manufacturing communications, navigation and surveillance systems for that market,” Braun says, stopping short of specifying whether the company’s ADS-B units are installed on the experimental and prototype air taxis conducting flight tests today.

He also underscores that the company grasps the reliability required of ADS-B equipment. “Once you’re carrying [passengers], yeah, you’re no longer just a big drone,” Braun says. “It’s almost back to managing it like you do a traditional airspace. The communications technologies [including ADS-B] have to be rock solid.”

uAvionix also makes multifunction Sentry devices, each about the size of a deck of cards, some of which only receive ADS-B broadcasts. Other types receive and transmit identity and location information, along with a suite of other services such as weather information, for general aviation aircraft. The Sentry devices are sold through Boeing’s ForeFlight company.

The company is a leader in after-market, add-on avionics for small airplanes, says Richard “Pat” Anderson, a professor of aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

“In general aviation, the vast majority of airplanes that exist were built long ago, and ADS-B was only mandatory in 2020, so the demand for uAvionix ADS-B add-on units has been considerable,” says Anderson, who is also director of Embry-Riddle’s Eagle Flight Research Center.

Braun says a 2017 change in FAA Part 23 regulations that attempted to shift the industry toward a less prescriptive process for certifying novel avionics contributed to uAvionix’s success. Part 23 describes airworthiness standards for airplanes with 19 passengers or less and a maximum certificated takeoff weight of 19,000 pounds (8,600 kilograms).

“The Part 23 rewrite brought challenges, but it has long-term benefit in the removal of overly prescriptive regulation. We’re proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish,” he says.

Besides targeting the drone and small aircraft markets, the company also sells communications technology for stratospheric balloons and very-high-altitude fixed-wing applications, he says.

As Braun explains the evolution of ADS-B technology, I wonder if drones could carry it instead of Remote ID transmitters.

He says he thinks ADS-B radio frequencies may continue to be reserved for general and commercial aviation due to concerns about overloading those frequencies by equipping drones with ADS-B. “When ADS-B was developed, drones weren’t really thought of. And when drones did come along, there were a lot of concerns about how they could interfere or overwhelm air traffic.”

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Miniaturized avionics are starting to proliferate among drones, and air taxis are likely next