Avionics Upgrades: Integrated or Individual Solutions?

If your flight deck is looking a little tired, or lacks the necessary capability for your operations, it’s probably time for an upgrade. Should you choose an OEM’s integrated panel solution, or mix-and-match the individual components? Dave Higdon discusses…

Dave Higdon  |  06th March 2020
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Dave Higdon
Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon was a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who covered all...

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Private Jet Modern Avionics Suite

Integrated flight panel upgrade solutions are coordinated avionics collections that are assembled box-by-box from the OEMs’ branded components. These give pilots a matched-set communication and navigation system upgrade. Although popular, some operators choose a different path choosing instruments from various manufacturers.
What are the benefits of each path, and why do they appeal to those who choose them? We’ll examine the case for each below.
Integrated Avionics Upgrades
Since the advent of integrated avionics, stacks such as Avidyne’s Release 9, BendixKing’s AeroVue, Collins’ ProLine family, Garmin’s G1000, G3000 and G5000) and Honeywell's Primus have become standard fare in all manner of aircraft.
Recent data show that while integrated packages dominate in new airplane panels, they do also hold a strong position in retrofit installations. But they remain relatively new compared to component packages made up of individual radios matched in panel appearance and in terms of compatibility.
When you recognize that today's panels offer features far more advanced than what was available 20 and 30 years ago, and come with simplified installation, maintenance and operations processes, it’s easy to see their attraction in today’s market.
Opting for the advantages of retrofitting an integrated panel does, however, lock the operator into the maintenance and software support of the OEM. But that support will be tailored to a wide variety of operators around the world – and the higher the number of operators utilizing the integrated solution, the greater the incentive for the OEM to continue to mount a product-support effort that can carry dual benefits.
Among those benefits, customers share their ideas for improving the integrated avionics package and, with the OEM integrating as many suggested improvements as possible, the prospects for the next version of the package are buoyed.
Individual Component Avionics Upgrades

An integrated avionics stack retrofit holds less appeal for other pilots and aircraft owners, though, and the reasons vary. One major reason is the investment required to install most integrated packages (six figures for a new-fit installation, five figures for some of the available retrofit options).
Instead, for many older aircraft, individual avionics components are available to deliver the desired capability gains. Thus, selecting individual components allows the operator to pick and choose what best fits the panel and meets their need, generally for less investment.
Where some of the earliest GPS navigators installed in aircraft aged 20 years or older offer limited instrument-flying capabilities (generally, en route and terminal – non-precision approach capabilities came to second generation navigators), today, the state-of-the-art in GPS navigators use satellite signals enhanced by WAAS.
So, when the operator is still satisfied with most of the panel, later-model VHF communication and navigation radios, options exist to add glass components, including satellite weather avoidance hardware and WAAS GPS navigation.
Not only is WAAS GPS an integral component for the function of ADS-B, it also brings new capabilities in the form of new satellite-based precision-approach capabilities and more accurate, more stable non-precision approach capabilities.
Who Does Each Upgrade Type Suit Best?

Which approach best suits an operator will depend on a combination of factors, including:
  • What's installed in the panel now?
  • How old is the aircraft?
  • What’s the budget for the avionics upgrade?
  • How long does the operator plan to keep the aircraft?
  • Does the operator need to improve aircraft utility?
So, what should guide an individual operator into picking the right route for their needs? Essentially, there are three factors that govern the process of selecting between updating individual components versus updating to an integrated avionics package. These are:
  1. Availability:If there is an integrated avionics system available and approved for the aircraft, either option is viable. Read on…
  2. Aircraft Replacement Plans:If you intend to keep the aircraft long enough to warrant the investment in an integrated avionics stack, either option remains viable. Read on…
  3. Budget:If the equation between upgrade costs and residual value satisfy you, there’s only personal preference to decide. Either option remains viable.
Choosing Between the Two Paths…

Consider the dilemma of an operator unable to decide either way… If you’re one such operator, it’s important to know what improvements you seek, ultimately.
For example, improvements available from installing a glass cockpit add full-color multifunction displays (MFDs) with maps to the older cockpit, along with traffic and graphical weather, digital primary flight displays (PFDs) with six instruments and navigation indicators co-located on a single, centrally mounted display, with solid-state reliability and no spinning-mass gyro instruments can all be available.
These improvements can be gained with either approach to panel upgrades. Taking the component process, the operator can tailor the installation to specific preferences, look and fit.
With the integrated avionics system approach, the operator can be assured everything is already proven to be compatible, and installation should be shorter and easier. It may prove too much of an upgrade for other operators who only need to improve some of those capabilities in their cockpits.
Operators already flying an aircraft equipped with an integrated stack should also inquire into the prospects of a follow-on, upgraded version (like Garmin gave thousands of G1000 users with the launch of the G1000 NXi package).
Overall, the most cost effective, easier to install upgrade with enough improvements to keep operators consulting the owners’ manual for a long time to come will usually settle which path to take, usually based on an operator’s unique circumstances and requirements…

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