A Suggestion for an In-Flight GPS Data Logger

Foreflight on an iPad is all you need.

The other day, I got an email from a blog visitor who’d apparently read my 2009 post titled “My Geotagging Workflow.” This post discusses the rather convoluted process I used to add GPS coordinates to photos using a GPS data logger and some software on my Mac. (That was six years ago; I have a different process now.)

But the email I got the other day wasn’t about photography. It was about in-flight GPS logging:

Hey. I came across your post on data loggers.

What have you found in your search. I am looking for a great option as well– but something that does alt. Speed. Position. Specifically downloadable in 3D in google earth through kml. I am looking for something that we can use for training stabalized approaches. Set it up to record during flight. And then download and make points or a line that showed speed and altitude. Showing later students speed and altitude errors that they might now have noticed during actuall approaches distracted by actual flight.

Have you came across anything like this?

My answer: Yeah. Foreflight.

Foreflight is my application of choice for flight planning and navigation. I run it on an iPad Air and have it mounted securely beside the instrument panel in my helicopter. Not only has the FAA approved my mounting of this device, but it has also approved Foreflight as an electronic flight bag (EFB). Indeed, it has been added to my Part 135 OpSpecs and it is not legal for me to conduct a Part 135 flight without it onboard.

I cannot say enough positive things about Foreflight. Not only does it do everything I need it to do — and more — for the VFR flights I’m limited to, but it has a wealth of features designed for IFR flights, including the instrument approaches the reader is referring to. With the right subscription, it can even place a marker for an aircraft in flight on an instrument procedure chart. Who could ask for more?

As far as GPS data logging is concerned, Foreflight has him covered, too. You can set up Foreflight to create a track log of any flight. Once saved, you can access it on the Foreflight website, where you can view it on a map and download it in KML, GPX, and CSV formats. That’s exactly what the reader is looking for.

Example Track Log on a Map
I remember this pleasure flight. I’d gone up the Columbia and Methow to check out the fire damage and then came straight back.

Frankly, I’m surprised that this CFI hadn’t thought of Foreflight. In this day and age, I’m surprised that any professional pilot doesn’t have Foreflight or a competing product on a tablet in the cockpit. For a relatively low investment — $500 or so for the tablet (which can be used for a host of other things and will last at least 5 years) plus $75/year for Foreflight Basic, it’s a must-have tool for any professional pilot who is serious about his career.

Do you fly? Are you using Foreflight or a competitor? Either way, how about sharing some of your experiences in the comments on this post? I’m sure other pilots can learn from them.

My New Old Toaster

Real retro.

As I’ve blogged elsewhere, I was in the New York area late last month. I tried to see my godfather one last time before he passed away and missed him by two days. I went anyway and spent some time with family members. I also helped my mom and cousin sort through my godfather’s belongings in preparation for auctions, estate sales, and the eventual sale of his house. I blogged the details of my trip here.

One thing I learned about my godfather, Jackie, is that although he often received gifts that he didn’t want or need, he never returned them. We found many brand new items still in their original boxes or with tags still on them. He had, for example, at least 5 blenders, three of which were still boxed. (One, which he apparently used, looked like an original Vitamix.)

My New Old Toaster
Who needs a fake retro toaster when you can have a real one?

Among the things we found was a Proctor Silex toaster in a never-opened box. I mean, the box still had those big staples across the top holding it closed. The price $9.99 had been penciled in on one side. I opened the box and pulled out a shiny circa 1966 chrome two-slice toaster. I was in awe. The damn thing was nearly as old as I am and it was in absolute mint condition. (Obviously, I can’t say the same thing about me.)

I didn’t own a toaster. I haven’t ever owned a toaster. I always had toaster ovens. Toaster ovens are nice appliances to have, but they generally do a crappy job making toast.

I think I must have shocked my mother and cousin when I asked if I could have it.

I packed the toaster in its box into my luggage when it it was time to go home. I wondered whether it would raise any red flags with the TSA when it went through their X-ray machines. I hoped that if they opened it, they wouldn’t get fingerprints all over that nice chrome.

At home, I put it on my countertop.

I didn’t use it until today. Two reasons. First, I don’t eat much toast. The reason for that is that I didn’t have a toaster and wasn’t in the habit of eating toast. Also, I try to avoid unnecessary carbs. Second, I was kind of afraid to try it. Afraid that a 47-year-old toaster would spontaneously combust when I pushed the lever down. Or afraid to somehow “ruin” it by using it. After all, it wouldn’t be mint once it had some burned crumbs in the bottom.

My New Toaster in Action
My new old toaster in action.

But today I took the plunge. I pulled a slice of 12-grain bread out of a bag in the freezer and popped it in. I pushed the lever down. I watched the metal filaments glow red. I stood ready to pull the plug and grab the fire extinguisher if need be.

In the end, all I had to do was push the lever back up when I realized that my toast was getting overdone. I guess I need to play with the darkness adjustment next time.

I spread cashew butter on the toast. It was delicious.

My Poor Man’s Hot Tub

A step down from the poor man’s swimming pool.

You know how it is when you get an idea in your head and it nags at you until you do something about it? That was me this past week. But before I tell you about my poor man’s hot tub, let me give you some back story.

The Poor Man’s Swimming Pool

Back in 1997 (I think), not long after moving into my Wickenburg home, I bought a Jacuzzi hot tub on sale at Home Depot. It was about $1600 delivered — I found the receipt in my files just a few months ago! — and had two bench seats to accommodate four people. The idea was not to use it as a hot tub, but instead to use it as a soaking tub for cooling off. I called it my poor man’s swimming pool.

The challenge was keeping the water cool. I rarely ran the heater, left the top off at night, and kept the top on during the day. Still, the temperature hovered in the 90s throughout the summer months — which was actually fine for cooling off. After all, anything lower than body temperature will cool you.

In cooler months, a thermal blanket — think aqua blue bubble wrap — helped warm the water with the top left off during the day. I sometimes used it at night, but not very often. Eventually, I stopped using it entirely.

Hot Tub
When I couldn’t sell the hot tub, I gave it away. I certainly wasn’t going to leave it behind.

I returned home in September 2012 to spend my last few months in my Wickenburg home. The mild nights, dark skies, and bright moon attracted me back to the hot tub I knew I couldn’t take with me. I drained the water, sterilized the surface — after all, god knows what diseased scum was in there while I was gone — and refilled it. When I discovered that the heater had stopped working, I had it replaced, trading the spa repair guy the part plus labor for my old smoker, which I also couldn’t take with me. When I was home and the evening weather was mild, I spent evenings soaking with a candle beside me, sipping wine and gazing at the stars.

My poor man’s swimming pool had become a real hot tub.

I wound up giving it away in exchange for some moving services. After all, I wasn’t about to leave it behind for my wasband and his mommy.

The Poor Man’s Hot Tub

I’d gotten the idea of a poor man’s hot tub late summer 2011. I’ve been spending summers in my RV in Washington state since 2008, when I began doing cherry drying work with my helicopter. About two years ago, I started thinking of using a stock tank as a tub and recirculating the water through black hose in the sun to warm the water. Theoretically, by night time, the water should be warm enough for a good soak under the stars. I even began looking at stock tanks — Rubbermaid had a nice one with just the right shape and depth.

Stock Tank

The 100-gallon stock tank I chose for my poor man’s hot tub.

(If you’re not familiar with the concept of a stock tank, it’s like a giant water dish for horses, cows, and other livestock. They’re available in galvanized metal (which I don’t like), structural foam (which is like plastic), and plastic. If you think the idea of soaking in a stock tank is weird, you probably wouldn’t like the idea of swimming in a huge stock tank, either. Yet that’s what we did out at my friend’s off-the-grid Aguila ranch home a bunch of years back.)

But I never did anything with the idea. Why? Well, the first half of the 2012 season I was parked at an RV park at a golf course. I had no privacy and the folks who ran the place probably wouldn’t like me setting up such a thing anyway. The second half of the season was on a much more private site, but when personal matters back home got ugly, I was too distracted to deal with anything else. So the idea just simmered on a far back burner.

Until this year. When I got up to my semi-private campsite, I started thinking about how nice a soak would be in the evening when the day cooled off. My site has an amazing view of rolling hills, orchards, pine trees, and granite rock formations. It’s dark at night, so there are plenty of stars. And my future home is even more private, more beautiful, and more dark, so I’d get plenty of use out of it there.

I swung past the Ace hardware store in Quincy and saw they had the perfect tank. So I bought it.

I also bought a 25-foot length of black garden hose. Nice heavy-duty hose; I’m sure I’ll get a lot of use out of it. (I do regret, however, not buying the 50-foot length.) And I bought a hose adapter for the drain hole along with a spigot I can use to drain the tub.

I already had a piece of green bubble wrap to use as a thermal blanket. (I knew there was a reason I kept that thing.)

The last piece of the puzzle was a pump that would recirculate the water. I wound up with a 1/4 horsepower submersible pump that’s capable of pumping 30 gallons per hour. It’s not the speed that I need, but there weren’t many options on Amazon.com in the under $50 range. The pump arrived today.

Total cash outlay for this project: $175.

Monday, I filled the tank about 2/3 full — leaving room for my body to displace water — by trickling water from a spigot through my black hose. The water was about 70°F when I shut it off. I put the thermal blanket over the water, laying right on the surface where it floated nicely.

Tuesday morning, the temperature had dropped down into the 60s. Brrrr.

But by Tuesday evening, the water was up to 90°F — without even circulating the water! You see, the tank is charcoal gray and it really absorbs the sun’s rays. While 90°F would be nice for cooling off in the middle of the day, it wouldn’t work for that evening soak. I need it to be at least 98°F. Just over 100°F would be even better.

On Wednesday morning, the water was back down in the 60s. But by the time I hooked up the pump at 3:30 PM, it was close to 90.

Hot Tub Warming
Okay, so I admit it doesn’t look very impressive here. But it does seem to work.

I ran one end of the hose out of the top of the pump and lowered the pump into the water. I then stretched out the rest of the hose in a big loop in the sun and put the other end into the tank. I plugged in the pump and the water immediately began circulating.

Fifteen minutes later, it was 92°F. Fifteen minutes after that, it was 94°F. Thirty minutes later, it was 96°F.

Temperature
The $3.99 pool thermometer I bought registered nearly 100°F when I had to pull the plug for the day.

Keep in mind that the outside air temperature was only 88°F at the time, so I think I was doing pretty well.

By 5:15 PM, when I was getting ready to meet a friend in town, it was nearly 100°F. By that time, the sun’s strength was just starting to wane and the outside air temperature was gradually falling. I couldn’t let the experiment go on; the return end of the hose was not securely fastened and, if it came loose with the pump running, the tank would empty within 3 minutes and the pump would likely burn out. I had to shut it off when I was not around. So I pulled the plug, made sure the thermal blanket completely covered the surface of the water, and went out.

I got back around 9 PM. The air was much cooler — probably in the 70s. The sky was clear, with thin layers of clouds to the northwest catching the ray of the sun beyond the horizon. The water temperature was still very warm, although it was too dark to read the thermometer.

I didn’t waste any time stripping down and climbing into the tub. (Yes, I got naked outdoors in a stock tank. Gonna make something of it?)

My Feet and the Sunset
I rested my feet up on the rim of the tub for this shot of the evening sky.

The water was wonderfully warm, almost like a bathtub. The water level rose, as I expected it would, but I realized that I could easily squeeze another 4 inches of water in there without overflowing it. I’d do that the next day when the sun was high again. Even without that extra water, however, I could submerge all of my body and limbs without becoming a contortionist — which had been necessary in the fancy “garden tub” in my old house. Clearly, this was an improvement — made all the better by being able to enjoy it in complete privacy outdoors.

I soaked for a while, looking out to the west where the last light was fading in a violet sky. It was quiet — so amazingly quiet. Restful, too. I could easily imagine finishing every busy day with a nice soak.

I stepped out just as it was getting really dark. I wrapped a towel around me and replaced the thermal blanket atop the water.

I’m thinking that with a little extra time for heating — perhaps starting the pump around noon — I can get the temperature up around 105°F. We’ll see.

But in the meantime, I’ll consider this experiment a success.

Shoppers, Do Your Homework!

Slick product packaging and marketing ≠ best products

mophie juicepackThis morning, while on Google+, I read an update by one of the people in my circles. He was recommending a product called mophie juice pack powerstation. This is a portable battery device that you can use to charge cell phones and tablet computers when you’re on the go and a regular charging source is not available.

Lenmar PowerPortI’m interested in devices like these. In fact, the other day, I’d added the Lenmar PowerPort Wave 6600 to my Amazon.com Wish list. At first glance, this product seems to do the same thing.

There is, however, a $30 difference in price, with the Lenmar being the cheaper of the two alternatives.

Making an Objective Comparison

I looked briefly at the two devices. The mophie was 4000 mAh; the Lenmar was 6600 mAh. I thought higher was better. So I queried the person who’d recommended the mophie. His response was that if based solely on power, the Lenmar looked better. He then talked about portability and battery quality, suggesting that the cheaper unit might not be as good quality as the other.

Of course, I had to dive in and find out. So I looked up the specs on both of them — the above links will take you there. What I found was that Lenmar’s rather plain vanilla site provided specifications that included battery type, voltage, capacity, unit size, and unit weight:

Lenmar Specs

The specifications info on mophie’s site, which was slick looking and modern with lots of trendy lowercase product names and headings, didn’t provide any details about the battery at all, although it did provide unit dimensions (it was a bit smaller) and shipping weight (which I suppose could be helpful if I wanted to carry it around in its original packaging):

mophie specs

To be fair, mophie’s features page did mention that its battery was 4000 mAh and it could output up to 2 amps.

I downloaded the user guides for both, looking for more information. Lenmar’s was a 3-page black and white guide with two of the pages in languages other than English. It provided lots of details on what the device could do and how to use it. mophie’s was a slick-looking 2-page color flyer with a first page that read like a marketing press release. (How else could you describe a heading that read “Here’s a rundown of why this is the perfect device”?) Nowhere did it say what kind of battery the device had or how much the device weighed.

Then I started looking at actual features. The Lenmar device had two power out ports: one at 1.0A max and the other at 2.1A max. They could be used together for a total of 3.1A max output. That means I could (theoretically) power an iPhone and an iPad at the same time. Or an iPhone and a GoPro. Or two GoPros. The mophie, by comparison, had just one power out port rated at 2.1A max. (This, by the way, contradicts what the website said — 2A — but it’s close enough.) That meant I could only power one device, like a single iPhone, iPad, or GoPro, at a time.

So here’s what I saw:

  • Lenmar had a basic Web site and ugly manual pushing a product that had a 6600 mAh battery and two ports capable of charging two devices at once. Price: $44 on Amazon.com.
  • mophie had a slick looking Web site and manual pushing a product that had a 4000 mAh battery and one port capable of charging one device at a time. Price: $80 on Amazon.com.

Which one do you think I picked?

Questioning Motivations

I started bring up these points on Google+ in comments to the original post about the mophie unit. I was very surprised that the person who posted the recommendation about the mophie didn’t seem the least bit interested in seeing whether the Lenmar unit was a better value for the money. Instead, he claimed he was familiar with mophie and that he knew their products were worth what they charged.

Period.

Then I noticed that the same person had made several other product recommendations recently and I began to wonder whether he had some motivation to push certain products — beyond his own experiences with them. And that’s when I realized that I was wasting my time trying to have an informed discussion about the two alternatives.

The Point

Yes, this blog post does have a point. A few of them, in fact:

  • Don’t take social networking product recommendations at face value. You can never be sure about the motivations of the people who push products.
  • Don’t make a purchase decision without examining alternatives.
  • Don’t let slick or trendy looking product design, websites, or marketing documents blind you to a product’s true feature set.
  • Don’t think that the highest priced product is always the best quality alternative. These days, price is not always an indicator of quality.
  • Do choose products that meet your needs at a price you’re willing to pay.

Is the Lenmar product better? I don’t know. It certainly seems to have a better feature set for nearly half the price. That’s enough to get me to try it.

Is iPhone/iPad Killing Stand-alone GPS?

I think so.

This morning, while going through the tweets in my Twitter stream that had arrived overnight, I stumbled upon a MacObserver article that discussed the iPhone becoming the top “camera” on Flickr. (I have my own opinions on that factoid, which I left as a comment on that post; it’s not a favorable commentary on Flickr users.) That post linked to a far more interesting one by Ted Landau titled “A Dozen Devices the iPhone is Killing.” In it, Ted discusses how features in the iPhone that duplicate those in stand-alone devices are making those devices redundant or simply not necessary.

GPS for Everyday Use

As I commented on that post, Ted is right on target with the GPS analysis. I’ve been using various GPS tracking apps on my iPhone for a while now and am super-impressed with the results. The first one I tried was the $2 GPSTrack app, which I wrote about here. Since then, I’ve also played with GPSLite, a free app that does much the same and more for free (which an interface I find a bit too complex for everyday use). My goals with apps like these is to create track logs and trip computer data for flights and for geotagging photos.

Although I’m not fond of turn-by-turn navigation, I know there are plenty of apps that do this, too. So, as Ted pointed out, in-car GPS navigation systems can also be replaced by an iPhone.

GPS for Flying

ForeFlight on iPhone

ForeFlight runs on my iPhone and includes not only GPS capabilities, but flight planning, weather, airport information, and more.

For pilots, a great app called ForeFlight, which works on both iPhone and iPad, offers better functionality than the $12,000 panel-mount Garmin GPS in my helicopter. Rather than view my location on a primitive screen display, I can see it on an actual aeronautical chart. I can also download charts and other information in advance so there’s no need to rely on 3G connectivity in flight. If I do have 3G connectivity, I can also get up-to-date weather information in flight. And although the iPhone screen is generally too small for my aging eyes to see the details, the same software works on my iPad — that screen size puts my panel mount system to shame. In fact, ForeFlight is the reason I’m updating to a G3 iPad 2 — that model includes a GPS; my original WiFi iPad does not.

Garmin is apparently trying to play catch-up with this functionality but I don’t think they’ll succeed. Why would someone pay thousands of dollars for a one-trick pony like a panel mount GPS when less than $700 will get you an iPad with GPS and Internet capabilities that can be updated on the fly and do so much more — for example, e-mail, Web browsing, ebook reader, and other apps? Best of all, the FAA is starting to accept apps like Foreflight as “electronic flight bags,” thus making traditionally required documents such as printed charts and flight plans unnecessary. (This is something I hope to blog about in more detail soon.)

And Another Thing…

ForeFlight on iPad

Here’s ForeFlight on my iPad. Although this iPad doesn’t have a GPS and can’t do accurate tracking, my iPad 2, which should arrive soon, will.

One thing Ted didn’t mention is the main reason why I don’t like carrying more devices than I have to: batteries and charging. When I go on the road, it seems that my “gadget kit” is filled with cables and charging devices. And spare batteries. What a pain in the butt! Wouldn’t it be nicer to carry just one cable and charger, perhaps with a DC adapter? While it’s true that running a GPS app on an iPhone, especially in tracking mode, sucks battery power more than almost anything else you’re likely to do with the phone, a DC charging device can usually remedy this. Heck, even my helicopter has a DC power port.

At this point, it’s hard to imagine why someone would buy a standalone GPS if they had an iPhone or another smartphone with equally good GPS capabilities. Can you think of a reason?