Gizmo Future

John H. Cochrane

Soaring has a lot of articles about the future of technology. They tend to focus on hardware: new materials, new gliders, new airfoils. They envision the variable-geometry, boundary-layer controlled, 70:1 300 pound glider of the future. The far future.

But this is the electronic age. Most of the big changes in soaring in the last 20 years came from electronics in the cockpit. And most of the big changes in the next 20 years will likely come from the same place.


For a hint of how technology may shape the future, reflect on GPS. GPS came about to do better something we already do – navigate – a little better. Then, GPS led to the secure flight recorder. The flight recorder allowed the turn area task, handicapped racing, GPS-controlled starts and finishes, and many other changes. The real impact of GPS on contest soaring is that it allowed us to do things we never dreamed of doing before. Small innovations make for big, unexpected changes.

GPS was also very controversial.  GPS was initially banned in contests. Rules only give in when costs got to the thousand dollar range, most pilots were flying with GPS in their everyday flying, and taking the GPS  out to fly contests became ridiculous.  Now, of course, no student pilot leaves on a Silver C attempt without two GPS and a moving map, and the immense controversy is hard to remember.

 Here are some things I see on the horizon, and a preview of the associated controversies.


 Weather information.  

In-cockpit satellite weather is available now. It could be extremely valuable in a contest. The visible satellite loop shows cumulus development, and the radar loop shows rain and thunderstorms. Both would help start decisions, courseline decisions, and really help turn area and MAT strategy.  Knowing if the next turn area, 60 miles away, is blue, developing cloudstreets, or wiped out in a huge thunderstorm is pretty vital.  The radar loop would make a big difference in threading thunderstorms – or deciding that even though 5 gliders ahead are trying it, threading the thunderstorm line really isn’t such a good idea. It has obvious safety benefits.

So far, in-cockpit weather isn’t widely used in soaring, and it’s illegal in contests. So far, it’s a bit cumbersome. Our instrument designers have not yet incorporated easy-to-use displays. But simple portable units exist for power planes, and most power pilots fly with them. It would be easy enough for, say, Clear-Nav to interface with an XM radio source and give glass-cockpit weather display.

garmingarmin 2

Two screenshots from the Garmin Area 510, a $1250 portable weather and GPS system.


As portable units get even cheaper and manufacturers interface them with soaring instruments, it’s a good bet that many pilots will start using them for recreational cross-country flying. When turning them off or pulling them out  becomes silly, they will become a routing part of contest flying too, just like GPS, and we’ll wonder how we ever flew “blind” without them.



 Flarm is a collision-warning system based on two-way radio exchange of GPS positions. (See Contest Corner, August 2010, or  Flarm is in widespread use in Europe and it is coming to the US soon. It has clearly reduced the danger of midair collisions.

Flarm is a collision warning system, not a collision avoidance system. You still have to look out the window. You still have to make sure that in avoiding glider A you don’t run in to glider B.  Big gaggles, low bases, head-on AST tasks will still be dangerous. But the increase in safety will be substantial, and I hope many more people will be attracted to contest soaring with the midair danger sharply reduced.

Now, any device that can tell you “there is a glider circling up ahead, be careful not to hit it” can also tell you “there is a glider circling up ahead, you might want to go join his thermal.”  Current flight computers including See You, Winpilot and ClearNav already can use Flarm to show you where all your buddies are within about 4 miles, with call signs and climb rates.  ADS-B systems coming soon will display every glider in the sky. Once again, technology developed for one thing may turn out to have its biggest effect elsewhere.

Pilots around the world love this in their recreational flying. If nothing else, look forward to much quieter 123.3 without all the “where are you” calls!

A huge controversy is brewing: will we allow this in contests? Or should we force the use of “stealth mode” in which only imminent collision threats are seen?  Some pilots think that Flarm should be mandatory, with stealth mode off, to maximize its anti-collision benefit. Other pilots think that stealth mode must be enforced, to stop any electronic following.


Left: The Power-Flarm. Middle: Flarm display on See You Mobile. Right: Flarm display on ClearNav


What will we do? The experience of the rest of the world is a useful guide. Broadly, they seem to feel that Flarm is a bit useful for locating other gliders, but not as much as one would think. The fears remain mostly theoretical. Gliders too far away to see are not that useful as markers.  Flarm hasn’t, in practice, lead to more gaggling either. Perhaps pilots are more willing to get away from the gaggle if they can find it easier later on.  Flarm displays do seem to be quite useful for team flying. The big international teams are using it to stay together, and US team pilots are behind this curve. 

Most of all, it turns out that most pilots elsewhere in the world like the greater situational awareness that Flarm displays bring. Pilots have long complained that area tasks lose the sense of who is beating who; you just go out and fly and nobody knows how they did until after the second beer.  Flarm displays give them a better sense of what’s going on with the race.

In the end, if pilots like racing with Flarm displays, rules will allow it, just as they did for GPS.  If pilots decide they don’t like the changes to the character of the race that Flarm displays bring, pilots will demand a stealth-mode ban, and they’ll get it. A fortunate part of US rules-making process is that it is fundamentally democratic in this way.  But like any democracy, look for, and participate in, a spirited discussion along the way!

New Varios and Dynamic Soaring.

New varios are on the horizon. Varios such as the new NK vario promise to integrate traditional sensor data with GPS, magnetic heading, gyro, and accelerometer information for much better response. Fundamentally new varios will come next. By differencing the GPS track with the apparent wind relative to gyro heading indicators, you can directly measure what the outside air is doing, before the glider has time to react and start going up or down.

Such new varios could open the door to dynamic soaring and energy extraction from gusts. It’s possible to soar in only sink. Think of a basketball – it gains energy only from being pushed down. In the same way, every gust has energy you can extract if you react just right. But it’s really hard to do. Well, I can’t do it, even after reading all the theory articles.

You need to know when the resultant aerodynamic force vector has a component angled toward current motion, so that increasing lift would give additional energy. Vario, g, and the most exquisite seat of the pants isn’t good enough to detect this situation and react quickly. But the new varios could do it. It may take automatic pitch control to make it practical.

We are not likely to routinely soar on pure dynamics in most situations. However, optimally extracting energy from all the gusts could make my ASW27 outfly the Eta, at much lesser cost.

As a precedent, recall that the netto vario really opened up the possibility of our “long glide” flying style. Before the netto, it was very hard to see that the sink you were bashing through had turned in to 1 knot up, and it was time to slow down. The netto increased our speeds as much as a whole new generation of gliders. Think what a new generation of varios could do.


Thermal detectors.

The long-awaited thermal detector will come sooner or later.  Many physical principles can work. Radar can measure the speed or concentration of birds, insects or other gliders. Radar can be passive as well, simply listening carefully to the signals provided by air traffic and weather sources. Lidar measures the concentration of dust particles, and Doppler lidar measures their speed. Microwave or infrared can spot the higher water concentration of thermals. Infrared can see their heat. Processing of visual picture can display shimmer (diffraction).  Thermals may send off an acoustic signal.

Many  of these technologies work right now in large, expensive, power-hungry ground-based forms. Bird radar is already sold to fishermen – see the birds, look below, find the fish. Bird and insect radar are already in use to study those animals’ behavior, including birds’ use of thermals. Doppler lidar is used to study thermal development and it is being developed to monitor turbulence near airports. It is the basis for wind profilers that can see air movements several km away.  Boeing is developing a shimmer-based system to detect turbulence for jets.

bug1 bug2lidar1

Left: Bird radar, sold to fishermen.Middle: Insect detection with weather radar. Right: Doppler Lidar thermal detection


All it takes is the usual miniaturization to make these technologies work in a glider. If there were any military application we’d have it now. (Can anyone think of a military application? Please?) If the soaring market were 100 times larger, we’d have it now. 

And even knowing what the air is doing even 100 yards away would be a revolutionary change.  It will bring as big an increase in our flying abilities as composite aircraft and laminar airfoils. An ASW27 with thermal detector will outfly an Eta. We might never circle again. 

If you thought GPS and Flarm were controversial, wait for thermal detectors! Many pilots will bemoan it, as the End Of Soaring.  It’s already illegal in US rules, even though it doesn’t exist.  Once again, pilots will use it recreationally. Within a few years, every Silver C student pilot will feel he needs one. And contests will give in once the situation becomes ridiculous.

I look forward to it. The thermal detector will mean the end of start gate games, gaggling, leeching and team flying. There’s no need to follow others if you can see thermals on your own.  It will enhance safety. If you know where the lift is, you’re more likely to find it and not land out. If you know there is no lift, you’re more likely to calmly glide to a good landing spot.  Don’t worry, soaring will never be easy, no matter what gizmo you have in the cockpit.

The strange controversy over instruments

My glimpses into the future all involve electronics, not the fibers, airfoils, and gel-coat that most prognosticators on the “future of soaring” dwell on. Well, we live in the electronic age. In every other facet of our lives, computer, software and communication (internet) innovations are at the heart of changes. It’s natural that electronic and software improvements should be the main innovations in our sport right now. I haven’t even mentioned the scoring and flight display programs, internet weather, OLC, navigation software, spot, and cellphone retrieves.

Many of these innovations, especially new varios and thermal detectors, can give performance increases order of magnitudes larger than any sailplane innovation on the drawing boards. And though they do cost something, the costs are trivial compared to those of new gliders. Even a $10,000 thermal detector is a lot cheaper than a $160,000 18 meter glider, or the near-infinite cost of a new open class glider – and my ASW27 with a thermal detector would outfly those gliders easily.

Glider pilots have an interestingly schizophrenic approach to technical improvements. New gliders, airfoils, winglets, and modifications are greeted with enthusiasm despite their prodigious cost. Yet instrument advances are denigrated. The sages of soaring bemoan the “technification” of the cockpit with all the “gizmos.”  When GPS came in, they complained about the loss of map-reading skills, rather than greet the freedom to focus on soaring.  20 years later, they are still worrying  about the theory that pilots will “just stare at their displays all the time,” though modern GPS displays require much less heads-down time than the old map and slide rule calculators did, and there has not been a single midair collision attributed to staring at instruments. This is just grumpiness.

Pilots complain about the cost of new instruments, and how it will make contests inaccessible.  Rules are passed to ban instruments which cost only a few thousand dollars. But $2,000  winglets, and $160,000 new gliders and classes are greeted with enthusiasm. Why is it that a $1250 Garmin with XM satellite weather banned in contests, because it would “raise costs,” but when I show up with new winglets or the snazzy new exhaust vent that is de-rigeur this season, everyone crowds around to look and order theirs?

This is the electronic age. Let’s instead accept and encourage new technology, which promises to make our sport safer, increase performance at remarkably low cost, and yes, make it even more fun.