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11. Hardware for Aviation Computing

Aviation related computing spans a very wide spectrum of hardware requirements; from large servers used for airline flight scheduling, to embedded processors for in-flight applications. The Linux Aviation HOWTO is mainly concerned with software for use under Linux, but a few words about hardware are in order because the number of platforms that Linux runs on is growing every day.

11.1 Desktop Hardware

Linux was originally developed for use on desktop systems based on the ubiquitous Intel x86 architecture (colloquially known as the IBM compatible). This is still the most popular platform for running Linux. Some of the more popular distributions designed for Intel x86 desktop or server platforms are available from; Caldera, Corel, Debian, Mandrake, Red Hat, Slackware, S.u.S.E., and TurboLinux. Because of its efficient use of resources, Linux runs quite well on i386 or i486 systems that are painfully sluggish when running Windows 95 or 98. From an aviation computing perspective, desktops running Linux are useful for preflight planning, gathering weather information, and so on. But, they cease to be useful once you have left the house for the airport. This has prompted many pilots to look for portable computing solutions.

11.2 Laptop Hardware

Linux runs just fine on a variety of laptop computers. Most laptop hardware is supported with the notable exception of Winmodems. (The manufacturers of these devices have refused to publish the information that programmers need to write drivers). If you are looking for information to assist in installing Linux on your laptop, or purchasing a new laptop computer for running Linux, try reading or searching the Usenet newsgroup comp.os.linux.portable. Another excellent resource is Werner Heuser's Linux Laptop HOWTO. You can find it at Linux Documentation Project sites, or from his Linux with Laptop Computers site at

11.3 Handheld Hardware

While many pilots find that laptop computers suit their needs just fine, they are too bulky and heavy for some applications. For example, the cockpits of most modern sailplanes are much too small to comfortably and safely use a laptop. For these applications, handheld or pocket computers are the best answer. The utility of small handhelds is demonstrated by the wide acceptance of the electronic E6B calculator. Until recently, devices of this size had rather limited memory and computing power, but this is rapidly changing. A new class of small but very powerful handheld and pocket computers that run Linux will be available soon. Digital Equipment Corporation (now Compaq) recently funded an internal research project that designed a small but powerful PDA that ran Linux, called the Itsy. As a result of this project, you can now run Linux on Compaq's iPaq handheld. (It doesn't ship with Linux, you must install it yourself, see for more information). Samsung has recently announced plans to market the world's first PDA that runs Linux, scheduled for release in mid 2000, called the Yopy.

11.4 Embedded Hardware

There are other in-flight computing applications where the hardware needs to be connected to sensors or other instrumentation to properly function. In these applications, embedded processing hardware that can be permanently installed is the best solution. Some examples of such applications might include panel mounted Electronic Flight Instrument Systems (EFIS) for powered aircraft, or Final Glide computers for sailplanes.

In the last couple years, there have been a rapidly growing number of ports of Linux to embedded processors such as the ARM family of processors, and the Motorola DragonBall processor used in the 3Com Palm Pilot. Linux has a bright future in the area of embedded applications; internet appliances, wireless internet access, personal digital assistants, television set top boxes, dedicated control systems, etc. Industry has already embraced Linux for use in embedded applications for several reasons. The cost of licensing a commercial operating system and the power of the open source development model are some of the more prominent ones. The TiVo personal video recorder, and the Empeg MP3 car player are just two examples of currently available consumer products that utilize embedded Linux.

For the hobbyist, there are a number of embedded processor kits designed for running Linux like PC/104 Modules, Linux in a Box, or the ucSimm Project. For those researching the possibility of running Linux on embedded devices, check out some of the resources below. Also be sure to visit the new USENET newsgroup comp.os.linux.embedded.

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