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406 MHz ELTs: ACK and KANNAD lead; prices on 406-MHz ELT beacons are dropping but the surprise cost is running new wires. We like the designs that make installation simpler.

From our perch, we see high-priced 406-MHz ELT interest bottoming out. Maybe it's because Transport Canada has backed off on an initial threat of mandating 406 MHz beacons for any aircraft operating in Canadian airspace--at least for now. This mandate was a driving, if shallow, motivation for U.S. operators to drop a couple of grand on new ELT technology.

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But even without the Canadian mandate, going 406 is something we all should plan for at some point. Many owners are in denial that distress signals from old 121.50 MHz beacons aren't satellite-monitored anymore, can't be tied with on-board GPS for transmitting wreckage coordinates or even that the device in the tail might be over 40 years old. There are a handful of good reasons to invest in a 406 ELT and some well-worn excuses not to. Maybe you always fly IFR, or never in the sticks, or always in earshot of a listening control tower. But given the improvements in 406 technology, we think the investment is worthy.

DISASSEMBLY REQUIRED

The good news is that beacon prices are falling and there are more offerings. The bad news is that ELT installs are pricey projects. Owners are shocked to see lopsided quotes where shop labor far exceeds the cost of the system. We're not talking complicated avionics work here. Instead, it's the grunt-work that tags along with many ELT installations that kills the deal on more than a few proposals.

The issue is that 406 beacons require an ELT remote activation control switch (to be located within easy reach of the pilot). Aside from the instrument panel work that's required for mounting the switch, there's often new wiring that needs to be connected between the beacon and that switch even in ELT upgrades.

Unfortunately, the wiring effort to connect that remote control switch with the transmitter that's all the way in the back of the aircraft often requires removal and then reinstallation of the aircraft interior. Owners underestimate this challenge. Some interiors are old, brittle and cracking. Others are tightly-sewn custom designs not intended for easy removal. In some panels packed with gear, there might not be room for the switch. And even if there's an existing switch on the panel, it might not be the same size as the new 406 switch. The wiring is seldom compatible.

Some manufacturers like KANNAD and ACK are attempting to tame this dragon with universal remote switches. More on that later. Our advice is to coordinate an ELT upgrade with maintenance intervals and other avionics projects that might require interior disassembly. And even if you decide to hold off on a full installation, your shop can always route ELT wiring through the interior while it's opened up. New interior upgrades are perfect timing for this easy task.

As with any other system, the antenna effort shouldn't be underestimated. Pressurized aircraft could need additional approval and definite expertise. Faster airframes might require high-speed antennas that will cost more than the standard whip that come with most GA ELTs.

Since many beacons offer an optional GPS interface for more precise transmit data (as tight as 100-foot accuracy with a response time of approximately 10 minutes according to manufacturers) avionics shops and not maintenance shops need to be involved in the project.

This means the radio stack will need to be disassembled to access the connectors on the GPS. For models like Garmin's GNS 430, for example, this could mean several hours' worth of additional labor to wire into a serial output port. Hopefully the previous installer pre-wired spare outputs for future connection. Don't assume the install will include a GPS interface. You'll need to ask for it.

ACK E04

The long awaited ACK Avionics model E04-406 still waits for final certification. With rumors flying, we recently had a long talk with ACK President Mike Akatiff for the real story surrounding the much-delayed E04. Frankly, we walked away feeling sorry for him and his product stuck in the testing process.
406 MHZ ELTS COMPARED

MODEL       PRICE     GPS        CERTIFICATION  COMMENTS
                      INTERFACE

ACK E04     $599      SERIAL     PENDING IN     E04R drop-in
            ($530     INPUT      U.S.           for Eo1 121.5
            R-model)                            model; years
                                                delayed to
                                                market

AMERI-KING  $1158     SERIAL     YES            Serves double
AK451                 INPUT                     duty as fixed
                                                mount or
                                                portable
                                                model

KANNAD      $945      OPTIONAL   YES            Two- or
COMPACT                                         three-wire,
                                                remote-switch
                                                compatible;
                                                small and
                                                lightweight

POINTER     TBD       INTERNAL   PENDING        USB update
SKYHUNTER                                       port and
                                                internal GPS

ELT ELT406  $1360     INTERNAL   YES            Internal GPS
                                                and battery
                                                monitoring

ARTEX       $1150     OPTIONAL   YES            Commercial
ME406                 MODULE                    quality; ACE
                                                model easy
                                                retrofit


The 406 MHz E04 and direct replacement E04R system has been approved for use in Canada as well as in Europe so it's clearly a sound product. And as we go to press, ACK expects U.S. approval in a matter of weeks although we've heard that before and ACK is tired of saying it. The system already has TSO-approval, but the waiting game is for final COSPAS/SARSAT approval, pending years of testing accomplished by the U.S. Army. Apparently there have been more than a few snags in the approval/testing process. The company web site reveals stacks of E04 beacons ready to ship once the final approval is issued. ACK makes it clear that the unit has never failed any of the testing. The wait is the result of Army/COSPAS coordination.

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And for consumers the wait will be worth it. Foremost is the price: A new E04 system with everything you'll need for a new installation is $599 while the E04R drop-in replacement for an existing E01 ELT is $560. In our view, this is an excellent value, and it's made even better through liberal mail-order discounting. Second is the level of modern technology built into the E04. The unit is more than a reworked 121.5 MHz E01. Instead, the circuit board includes newly designed ICs to efficiently fit into the tight chassis. The beacon outputs 13.7 watts of EIRP power on transmit. Contrast this to a measly 200mW of a 121.5 MHz model.

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There's a built-in GPS interface without the need for external converter modules. You simply wire the RS232 outputs from common GPS units to include Bendix/King, Garmin and generic NMEA format.

The unit has a five-year, TSO'd lithium battery that currently sells for $99. And when the battery is installed, the unit including mounting tray weighs less than two pounds. The standard whip antenna is rated for 260 knots and is the same footprint of the antenna used on the old E01 model so antenna installation should be easy.

So will this seemingly perfect modern ELT ever make it out of the testing process? We hope so and here's our prediction: We think the 406 MHz upgrade market will come alive once this beacon hits the market. There were over 63,000 old 121.5 MHz E01 units sold and many beg for a drop-in E04 replacement. At $560 we think the pending E04 is a solid value.

KANNAD COMPACT

The French-made Kannad Compact model is growing legs in the U.S. market given its reasonable cost and small footprint. With mounting tray it measures 6.8 x 3.9 x 3.4 inches and weighs 1.8 pounds, including the two-element battery. It's perhaps the smallest and lightest 406 ELT.

Kannad is no stranger to the beacon world manufacturing maritime EPIRBs, PLBs and aircraft ELTs for over 20 years. The Compact uses a single battery to power beacon and the remote control switch without the need to connect aircraft power. Kannad told us the six-year battery in its unit exceeds the certification requirements by 300 percent. As a result, the beacon can operate up to 120 hours after activation (the requirement for 406 operation is 24 hours). The Compact has five watts of transmit power output on the 406 MHz band and the usual 100mW on the 121.5 MHz band.

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KANNAD also attempts to tame the overall installation effort. For instance, there's universal mounting tray that can be configured to bolt onto existing ELT mounting holes so techs can leave the drill in the toolbox. If the existing 121.50 beacon uses a remote switch that has two-wire interconnect (many do) KANNAD offers the RC102 remote control unit that can saddle up with the existing switch wiring. The RC200 remote control is standard and uses a three-wire interconnect.

The self-testing procedure which is accomplished monthly consists of pressing the self-test button on the remote switch (or on the beacon) and status is indicated by a flashing light and buzzer. A dedicated self-test button ensures there's no inadvertent beacon activation. Further, this remote switch is powered by the battery in the beacon, so no ship's power interface is required.

ARTEX ME406

The Artex ME406 has been a brisk seller with a street price just under $1000. It was one of the first 406 models intended for light GA aircraft and there are many flavors available for varied applications. But don't expect any shortcuts in a ME406 installation. You'll need the provided remote control switch and new wiring from beacon to the switch as well as an antenna change. The issue is Artex requires shielded wiring between the beacon and the switch, a standard that doesn't exist in many 121.5 installs. There's no internal GPS interface module, so that functionality requires a pricey remote carried over from the transport-category market.

The ME406 ACE model is targeted for replacing ACK E01 units, using the existing remote switch and wiring. There's an ACE version targeted at Cirrus applications complete with a 1.25-foot coaxial cable specific for a Cirrus install. Also worth mentioning is that the ME406 can drop into an existing Artex 121.5 beacon mounting tray. There's also a helicopter flavor (HM) unit with a multi-axis G switch that can activate any which way an out-of-control helicopter smacks the ground.

All Artex units use a five-year lithium battery, that's come down in price, but is still $130.

AMERI-KING AK451

The Ameri-King model AK451 is partly marketed as both an AF (automatic fixed) and AP (automatic portable beacon) since it can be removed from a Velcro strap and connected with a portable antenna that's included. So if you auger, survive and need to hike away from the crash you can take the beacon with you. Smart.

The AK451 transmits five watts of power on the 406 band and has a transmit battery life of 78 hours. The battery has a five-year replacement interval and there's internal self test monitoring. The AK451 weighs one pound 14 ounces and measures 4.27 x 2.95 x 5.64 inches. It comes standard with a whip antenna rated for 300 knots and there are optional blade and rod antennas for jets.

The AK451 will be easily compatible with the company's AK450 121.5 beacon and comes complete with fixed and portable antenna, remote control switch, prefabricated wiring harness including coaxial cable and mounting tray. A GPS interface is standard and requires connection to a compatible GPS (Garmin, Bendix/King, Trimble or Apollo).

CONCLUSION

If you've made the decision to make the jump to a 406 MHz ELT, which one do you buy? Our simple advice is to buy the one with the least amount of install cost rather than looking at beacon cost alone. You'll need to work with your shop on the decision. We're confident that any of the models we cover here will offer quicker rescue than any 121.5 model simply by nature of 406 technology. It's questionable whether one will perform better than another based on specs alone since the bulk of transmitter specifications need to be identical for certification purposes.

Is the remote GPS interface worth the extra wiring effort? We're on the fence. Consider, though that crash coordinates are transmitted on the first beacon burst and you won't need to wait for an orbiting satellite (which could take up to four hours). Hit accuracy is improved from approximately three kilometers to 21 meters.

If you routinely fly in the deep sticks--by which we mean rugged mountains, uncivilized desert and the Alaskan landscape, we think it's worth the extra wiring effort. Keep in mind that 406 beacons also transmit on 121.5 and 243 military bands so if someone in the vicinity is listening, they might hear the transmission.

We might hang on to our wallets and wait for the ACK E04 as it promises to represent an excellent value. If you have to buy now, we have no problem recommending the KAN-NAD Compact for its installation simplicity and small footprint. Perhaps most important is the timing of the installation. There's no mandate that says you have to have a 406 AF beacon, so the project can wait until the aircraft guts are accessed for other work. You'll benefit from the cost savings.

RELATED ARTICLE: SPOT'S LATEST: AN ELT STAND-IN?

Having a 406 MHz ELT or beacon is one way of getting found, but as good as this technology is, it won't do something that costs a fraction as much will do: Track your progress on a trip.

For that, the Spot GPS Satellite Messenger is the technology of choice at a typical retail price of $149, plus the yearly charge for the service, which is either $99 a year or $148 a year, depending on level of service. At Sun 'n Fun 2010, the company announced a new version of the Spot. It's phasing out the older unit. The new version is about two-thirds the size of the original, making it close to a shirt-pocket profile.

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We first covered the Spot in the June 2008 issue of Aviation Consumer. The Spot isn't an ELT or a beacon, but an interactive GPS-assisted satellite messenger that uses low earth-orbit satellites to communicate position to a network that then passes this on to whoever you'd like to designate--family member, coworkers and so on.

It's capable of transmitting a short, pre-prepared text message, an "I'm OK" message and full-up SOS that goes through the GEOS Rescue Coordination Center. Spot claims more than 500 rescues.

The unit itself has a simple interface--just six single-purpose buttons. The "ok" button reports position to designated e-mail accounts or cell text messages, with a Google map plot. The help button allows a pre-prepared assist message to be sent or, you can use the breadcrumb feature.

Every 10 minutes, the unit puts out a tracking message and lays down a bread crumb trail with a link to a Google map. It stamps the location with date and time. Anyone you share the link with can follow your trip in real time.

Whether the Spot is an alternative to a 406 ELT is a matter of personal philosophy. Two things must be considered: Will the Spot survive the crash and will you be conscious to activate it? Those are two big ifs.

With that in mind, we think the Spot is a natural complement to a 406 ELT. But if you're flying with an old 121.5 MHz ELT, you essentially have no ELT at all and the Spot can fill in the gap, with the aforementioned short-coming of requiring activation.

For more, see www.findmespot.com and for a complete video on the unit, see http://snipurl.com/w03kq.

RELATED ARTICLE: BRIGHT IDEA: GPS INSIDE THE ELT

Aside from the efficiency of the 406 MHz frequency, even the most modern ELT retains much of the crude technology that's left over from 1970. What's really needed is a self-contained beacon that keeps tabs on your movement through internal GPS positioning-a source that's independent from the onboard avionics and transmits this position when you hit the dirt. Such technology is emerging.

Pointer Avionics in Canada is close to certification with their Skyhunter 406, a unit that has the smart idea of a built-in GPS receiver and a combination GPS/ELT antenna. This eliminates expensive GPS interface modules and the hassle of tearing into the avionics stack for wiring into a remote GPS. The Skyhunter is designed with a mini-USB port in the case of the beacon for in-the-field data programming and diagnostics--a welcomed and modern level of functionality, in our view. Pointer Avionics is in no way related to Pointer, Inc., who also makes 121.5 beacons.

Another such design is the Emerging Lifesaving Technologies (ELT) model ELT406. It's an AF beacon that has an integrated GPS receiver that updates aircraft position every 15 seconds. It also has a built-in clock that monitors battery use and can alert the pilot when there is less than the minimum battery life required. The unit is completely self-contained except for remote switch and combination GPS/ELT antenna and requires bus voltage for the GPS system. Software allows the system to update position every second and is stored in cache for trend monitoring to ensure an accurate fix. The ELT406 is available exclusively through Aircraft Spruce and sells for $1360.

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The double-edged sword here is that there's an additional GPS antenna to be mounted atop of an already crowded cabin. They'll need an unobstructed view of the sky and need to be a certain distance from transmitting antennas that can affect their reception.

Still, such smart ELT systems are what we would expect in a modern avionics world. These units, both priced south of $1500, are a good start.

CONTACTS

ACK Technologies, Inc

www.ackavionics.com

408-287-8021

Amer-King Corporation

www.ameri-king.com

714-842-8555

Artex (Cobham Avionics)

www.artex.net

503-678-7929

Emerging Lifesaving Technologies

www.elt406.net

888-406-ELT1

KANNAD North America

www.kannad.com

509-468-1738

Pointer Avionics

www.skyhunter406.com

519-648-3778

CHECK LIST

+ Real increase in likelihood of rapid response after crash.

+ Several new models could make installation cheaper but ...

- ... installation often costs more than the new 406 Mhz ELT
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Title Annotation:AIRCRAFT UPGRADES
Author:Anglisano, Larry
Publication:The Aviation Consumer
Article Type:Product/service evaluation
Date:Jun 1, 2010
Words:2977
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