by Chris Malachowsky

Maybe it is because of my deep involvement with NVIDIA, or maybe in spite of it, but I’ve become an avid pilot.

From my first lesson nine years ago, I have been mildly (or, as my wife would say, insanely) obsessed with flying. I have steadily amassed my own little fleet of aircraft, including three planes, a helicopter and a street-legal motorcycle/gyrocopter. This may sound neat, but the reality is that the technology basis for much of aviation is nearly 50 years old.

As a fully certifiable, card-carrying gadget geek, I found the archaic situation in most cockpits to be far from acceptable. Thus, it has become my obligation and full-time hobby to find and install high-tech gadgets in whatever I fly. And now, the inner geek in me would like to share just one of the more recent specifics of this obsession that shows how modern consumer technology is transforming aviation.

A pilot, when embarking on a flight, is required to have all the information at hand that may be relevant – prevailing and expected weather data, maps, charts, procedural descriptions and airport information. Much of this, in paper or book form, is klutzy to manage in the cockpit and a challenge to keep current. A better solution is to gain access to this in digital form and have it available in the cockpit.

I’ve tried various solutions to accomplish this. I experimented with built-in solutions that displayed information on the aircraft’s avionic displays. While these are convenient, they’re very expensive and surprisingly limited in capability. I’ve also tried portable hand-held devises. These are less expensive and generally offer more data and flexibility, but they typically have small screens, awkward user- interfaces and a plethora of attached cables and antennas.

In recent years, though, new technology has been quietly solving this problem. All the required information for pilots is now readily available in digital format for free or via low-cost downloads. Additionaly, GPS capability and multi-touch displays have become ubiquitous, available in many cell phones and tablet computers. Once this was coupled with ample data storage, 3G and WiFi connectivity, and sufficiently capable application environments, the stage was set for an information revolution in the cockpit.

Today, I can use any Apple or Android device to access high-resolution, scalable, and often geo-referenced charts and map (meaning the aircraft’s actual position is depicted superimposed appropriately on the display) covering anywhere in the world. They also provide ready access to all the information one could want on airports, navigational aids, actual and predicted weather, regulations and procedures. In this case, there’s truly an “app for that.” In fact, there are many great ones to choose from.

Plus, all of this capability is now readily available in consumer-priced devices that offer convenient network-based updating, long battery life, beautiful hi-res back-lit displays and cable-free mobility.
Access to all this marvelous functionality, though, is more important to the typical pilot than just the general utility of it might suggest.

A large part of flying safely and being ready for any emergency is being prepared, informed and knowledgeable. With almost all of the critical information I need sitting in my shirt pocket or on my lap, I feel like a safer pilot, with unprecedented situational awareness and capability. The real beauty of this revolution is that the utility of these devices outside the cockpit make it likely that many pilots already own one or can readily justify their purchase. This makes these remarkable capabilities available to all aircraft with complete disregard to the age and capability of its systems. This “whole fleet” upgrade opportunity is absolutely unprecedented in the world of aviation!

As soon as the new wave of NVIDIA Tegra-based Android tablets come out, I’ll have one in the cockpit of everything I fly. I’ll have them in an orientable instrument panel or yoke mount with a power connection and any external connections (such as an XM weather and/or radio services antenna) discreetly fed to it, so they’ll always be charged, visible, and available. I can’t wait!