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By 0gre
November 14, 2006

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I spotted a stealth announcement from Garmin which kind of excited me for several reasons: (http://www.garmin.com/pressroom/aviation/110906.html)

Before I talk about why this is great for Pilots and for Garmin shareholders let me give you a quick snapshot what WAAS is. Until fairly recently GPS units were only considered legal for enroute use. Landing and taking off under poor visibility (Instrument Flight Rules or IFR in aviation terms) required the use of older ground based systems called ILS. These ground based systems are expensive to maintain and so are only available at a limited number of airports.

In 2003 the FAA authorized the use of GPS devices for navigation in all aspects of flight including precision approaches to land. This new approval depends on the use of a secondary system called WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) which uses ground based stations to improve signal accuracy from 20-40Meters to <5 Meters accuracy. Garmin has been incorporating WAAS functionality in their handheld GPS units for some time, including in their GPSMap aviation units for some time but its (FAA certified) panel mounted units have not had this functionality. In order to get FAA certification for their premier panel mount units (the GNS530 and GNS430) their software had to meet exacting criteria and go through a lengthy expensive certification process, this process is what Garmin just completed.

In the mean time Garmin purchased UPSAT which already produced a panel mounted GPS unit called the CNX80. Garmin has since rebranded the CNX80 as the Garmin GNS480, however for a variety of reasons the GNS480 has never been as popular as the GNS430 or the 530. I believe that Garmin used a lot of the know how and engineering they acquired with UPSAT to facilitate this upgrade of their premier panel mounted GPS units.

So that's a lot of background and I'm not sure if it really clearly articulates the real benefits of this to pilots. What it means to an IFR certified pilot is that the number of airports which are available to land at under IFR conditions more than doubles (if the airport is completely socked in this won't help at all though). Additionally the number of GPS approved approaches increases every year with almost zero maintenance to airport owners (taxpayers) and very little initial expenses. For a small airplane owner this is a huge advantage. Currently Garmin is the only manufacturer of GPS units in this price range to offer this functionality (the G1000 glass cockpit shipped with this functionality as well). Retail on these units is $10,000-15,000 so these are fairly high ticket items.

In addition to being able to market this in their new GPS units Garmin has created an upgrade path for existing customers to upgrade their existing panel mounted 400/500 series GPS units to add the and precision approach functionality. This upgrade will cost $1,500 and it's highly likely that a significant percentage of the 60,000 existing 400 series GPS owners will eventually upgrade. What isn't clear is how much Garmin will make on the upgrade. I have read some coverage which suggests that Garmin won't make much money on upgrading existing units.

If you wind back your memory to the recent Q3 conference call when they spoke of delays to the WAAS being in a large part responsible for the disappointing sales in the aviation segment this is what they were referring to. How much pent up demand exists for these units is unclear but there should be at least a small spike in the aviation segment in Q4 and/or possibly in Q1 of 07 as these units start shipping. More important this development ensures Garmin's leadership position (MOAT) in the high margin aviation GPS market will continue for some time to come.

-- Dennis


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