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?

GPSTrack Turns My iPhone into a GPS Logger with Map

Here’s what an aerial wildlife survey looks like from the air.

This morning, I finished up an aerial wildlife survey with a client. It was the seventh day of this work I had this month. We only flew for 90 minutes. Our goal was to comb through an area with scattered bunches of ponderosa pines, looking for bald eagle nests.

GPS Track IconLast night, I prepped by downloading an app called GPSTrack for my iPhone. This $1.99 investment “allows you to use the GPS receiver in your iPhone or iPad to show your current location and create a log of your travels.” It can show a map of your track as you travel, updated in real-time. The resulting tracks can be exported via e-mail in GPX and KML formats.

Basically, it turns your iOS device into a moving map geologger.

Eagle Nest HuntI gave it a whirl for the first time this morning. As the helicopter was warming up, I turned it on and enabled tracking. Then I stuck the phone into my shirt pocket and flew. Ever once in a while, I pulled it out to take a peek and, sure enough, it not only laid down my track as I flew, but it had a trip computer that totaled miles and calculated current and average speed.

I flew for about an hour and a half, following the directions of my clients. That consisted of a lot of zig-zagging and looping around. I followed electric lines and flew around lakes. I flew up and down drainages and along cliff faces. My speed varied from about 30 to 80 knots. I flew over 130 miles, all within an area 10 miles wide by ten miles long.

We looked at the tops of a lot of trees. (We saw three bald eagles — one of which had just caught a fish and was eating it on the shore of a lake — but no nests.) When we landed back at the airport, I turned off tracking. Later, I took this screen shot of the completed track.

I also exported the track by tapping a button and sending the two track files (GPX and KML) to myself via e-mail. Opening the KML file on Google Earth resulted in an image like this:

Track in Google Earth

And here’s a closeup of some flying around one of the lakes. (No, I wasn’t drunk; just following instructions.)

Another GPS Track

Overall, I’m extremely impressed with the app. It did a far better job than I expected and was well worth the money I paid for it. In fact, I’m thinking that right about now, companies like Garmin and Magellan should be getting pretty nervous — it wouldn’t take much to add features to this app that match those in something like my Garmin GPSMap 60cx. Add the ability to tap and add waypoints and anyone with an iPhone (or iPad, for that matter) that includes a GPS wouldn’t need a standalone GPS unit anymore.

The only thing I’d like to see with this software is a different map — topo or terrain. I have very little use for road maps and don’t like the level of detail in satellite images when shown at the magnification for speeds I fly at (usually around 100 knots). I put in a request to the app’s author and he responded that it was on his list of things to do. I bet that if he sold a lot more copies of this app, he’d be motivated to keep improving it. (Hint, hint.)

If you give it a try — or have tried other similar software you like — take a moment to use the comments form or link to share your opinions. I’m always interested in GPS-related software.

Phoenix to Lake Powell by Helicopter

Again, but this time with video.

The initial call about the January photo gig at Lake Powell came in December through one of my Russian connections. Apparently, two Russian businessmen who were attending the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas wanted to photograph the Lake Powell area from the air. They were willing to pay me to fly up to Lake Powell from Phoenix and make at least two flights totaling 3 to 5 hours.

Trips like this are extremely costly — after all, the client has to pay for 4 hours of flight time just to get me up there and back — and I honestly didn’t expect it to happen. But a week before the chosen dates — January 12-13 — I got the green light and the all-important credit card number I needed to get paid for that 4 hour repositioning flight plus a standard overnight fee to cover my expenses and compensate me for my time away from home.

The Gig

Weight and BalanceI admit I wasn’t looking forward to the gig. The two photographers claimed to weigh 242 pounds (converted from kilos) and I knew they likely weighed more fully dressed and carrying camera equipment. I calculated the weight and balance as soon as I had this information and discovered that I’d have to strip all non-essential equipment out of the helicopter to lighten it up so we could take enough fuel for 2 hour flight segments (plus FAA-required reserves). Anything that was left on board would have to be shifted from under my seat to under the seat behind me, just to shift weight backwards. Having two fatties — yes, including me — up front would make us front-heavy. Having two fatties on the left side would make us heavy on that side. But even after adding 15 pounds of weight for each of them, I confirmed that’d be in balance with 2/3 fuel or less on board.

The other thing that bothered me was weather. Page, AZ was having unseasonably cold weather with daytime highs barely getting above freezing. Flying a helicopter with two doors off guarantees plenty of outside air inside the cabin and no amount of heat is going to win against 30°F outside air. So not only did I have a bit of a challenge ahead of me with a listing (but still within acceptable CG) aircraft to fly, I’d likely be freezing my ass off.

As far as the helicopter goes, I wasn’t worried about the cold weather affecting operations. My R44 Raven II is fuel injected, so carburetor ice is not an issue. I’d flown it in cold weather before and it was always peppy — once I got it started. In fact, that was my only real concern: Lake Powell photographers usually want to get off the ground at dawn for morning flights and with overnight temperatures under 20°F, I worried a bit about getting the helicopter started for its morning flight.

But the gig did have one big thing going for it: at least 4 hours of revenue time. And if there’s one thing I’m interested in, it’s getting paid to fly.

The Flight Up

Lake Powell is about 200 nautical miles north of the Phoenix area. Since my clients were paying for a 2-hour flight, my goal was to make it there in two hours. That meant flying as close to a straight line as I could.

CourseUsing Sky Vector, I plotted a course from Phoenix Deer Valley Airport (KDVT) to Page Municipal Airport (KPGA) with only one waypoint in between: the Little Colorado River Gorge (LCRG) on the east side of Grand Canyon’s Special Use Airspace. I wrote down the coordinates for the LCRG to punch them into my GPS — a recent GPS battery change had wiped my user waypoint list clean. The flight path would take me north along the east side of I-17, crossing it just before it dips down to Camp Verde. I’d cut across the Verde Valley between Sedona and Cottonwood, then climb the Mogollon Rim west of Sedona, pass east of the restricted area for the Navajo Army Depot, west of Flagstaff, and west of the San Francisco Peaks, the tallest mountain in Arizona. From there, I’d drop back down into the Navajo Reservation, flying over its western edge, hop the Echo Cliffs, and drop back down to Page, AZ.

And that’s mostly how it all came off.

I departed Deer Valley at about 8:45 AM under partly cloudy skies with little or no wind. It was a cool morning, with temperatures just climbing through the 50s. I crossed Deer Valley’s runways at 2000 feet MSL as required by the Tower there and got right on course, aiming for the LCRG waypoint I’d added to my GPS.

It was interesting and different to fly a straight line route through an area I knew so well. After all, I’ve been flying from the Phoenix area to Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, and Lake Powell for years, so it’s not as if the area I’d be flying over was new to me. But I usually fly with passengers on board and, to make the flight more interesting, I fly over or past various points of interest, such as towns, highways, mine sites, and canyons. On this flight, speed was the goal — I wasn’t interested in scenery. But I got scenery anyway — how can you fly a helicopter through Arizona without seeing something spectacular every mile?

As I flew, my GoPro Hero camera recorded a 720p widescreen video of the flight. Mounted up front, it offered an unobstructed view of everything ahead of me. The wide angle lens brought in details of what was close while pushing back distant points. Later that night, I’d watch much of the 2 hours of video and remember the various points of the flight.

Mountains north of PhoenixWhat fascinated me was the way the light changed throughout the flight. At first, it was partly cloudy. Then the sun slipped behind the clouds and it was cloudy. Then the sun began to break through, speckling the mountainsides with light. This still image, captured from the video, gives you an idea of what I mean. The light changed numerous times over the two-hour period of the flight — at one point, clouding over completely only 1,000 feet above me — giving the illusion that the flight was conducted over multiple days.

It wasn’t just the light that changed, of course. It was also the terrain. Flat desert in the Phoenix area, soft mountains studded with saguaro cacti as I headed north, flat mesas with steep basalt sides, deeply carved canyons, wide valleys, red rock cliffs and hoodoos, alpine forests blanketed with snow, tall mountains, ancient cinder cones, flat “painted” desert, deep gorges, buttes, uplifted cliff faces, slot canyons. I saw it all over the course of my two hour flight — all without trying to see it. My nearly straight line course simply put me over the top of all these things. I sat comfortable and warm in my seat, admiring the view as I glided over it.

Glided is definitely a good word. There was hardly a breath of wind during the entire flight so it was amazingly smooth. A pilot’s dream. And although outside temperatures dipped as low as -5°C, I was cosy and warm with the heat up only about halfway.

SedonaOne of the highlights of the flight was crossing the red rock cliffs west of Sedona and climbing up over the Mogollon Rim. The light was absolutely perfect, breaking through light scattered clouds to illuminate the rocks with a soft golden light. Absolutely breathtaking and the GoPro camera captured the whole thing.

Beyond that was a surprising amount of snow and a light overcast layer that shrouded the top of the San Francisco Peaks. The temperature there was around 0°C, but the Flagstaff ATIS reported -5°C — a real thermal inversion only 10 miles east. The low cloud layer and dimly lighted snowfields made me feel claustrophobic. Ahead of me, it looked as if some precipitation could be falling from the clouds. That got me a bit worried about icing, but I continued on. By the time I got to the point I thought I’d seen rain or snow falling, it had stopped — and so did my worries.

The only surprise on my flight was upon reaching the GPS coordinates for the LCRG. Simply said: it wasn’t there. It was about 10 miles northwest of where I’d plotted it to be. I can only assume that I’d punched in a wrong digit when I entered the waypoint into my helicopter’s GPS. So rather than fly over its most dramatic point, I crossed a bit to the east and kept going. I deleted that waypoint so I wouldn’t depend on it again. Oddly if I’d made a serious mistake in the entry, I would have noticed it a lot sooner. But because it was only off by a little bit, it wasn’t until I passed the waypoint that I realized the error. I’ll definitely be more careful in the future.

Over the RezWhen I got to the empty expanse of the Navajo Reservation, I dropped down and flew low over the ground. There were few homes in the hundreds of square miles and only a handful showed signs of life. In the video, my helicopter’s shadow is clearly visible: small when I’m flying higher and larger when I’m flying lower. The video makes it seem as if I’m going much faster during this portion of the flight, but I’m not. I managed to keep a steady 100-110 ground speed for most of the flight. It’s just an illusion: the closer the camera is to the ground, the faster I seem to be flying.

I crossed over the Echo Cliffs at Cedar Ridge — at least I think that’s where I was — and sped across more of the Navajo Reservation north. In all, I think about 45 minutes of the flight was spent over the Rez. It’s an amazing land of stark beauty, sprinkled with traditional homesteads, more modern yet simple homes, and, on its far western reaches, the ruins of abandoned homesites clearly visible as rock rings and corrals. The traditional Navajo home is a round or octagonal building called a hogan and they are clearly visible from the air. Also visible on most days are livestock such as cattle and sheep and wild horses.

I descended down toward the lake, flying at a low enough level that I didn’t actually see its clear blue water until I was about 15 miles out. Of course, I could see other landmarks — notably the bulk of Navajo Mountain about 50 miles to the east of Page and the Navajo Power Plant, with tall stacks belching ugly smoke into the air just outside of town. The radio frequency was silent as I descended toward the airport. I lined up with the taxiway and set down on one of the helipads.

The Video

Later, after doing 3.4 hours of photo flying around the lake and points east, I watched the video shot by my GoPro Hero. It was probably some of the best footage I’d ever captured with the camera. My only regret was that I hadn’t shot in in 1080p.

Over the course of two days, I assembled a movie from seven-second clips shot during that two hour flight. Last night I added titles and music. I exported it for my iPad and uploaded it to YouTube. Here it is. Enjoy.