Air Rietveld Air Manager 2.1

[Reviewed by: Captain Russ Barlow] Air Manager's Instrument Panel Builder offers a lot for a reasonable price! 

In Search of Simulation Nirvina

As a retired airline captain, I have pretty high standards for my simulator experiences.  After years flying in real cockpits, using a mouse and keyboard to operate an airplane drives me a little crazy. During Air Venture 2014 I had my first glimpse of the touch trainer panels by SimAvio.  This software allows a separate touchscreen monitor to serve as a functional instrument panel that can communicate with another computer running a home flight simulator.  I have to admit this concept appealed to me but I never quite got around to adding a touchscreen to my sim setup in order to  to take advantage of this cool software.  My disdain for mice in the cockpit is evidently not unique. The U.S. FAA requires that all approved Aviation Training Devices be flown from start up to shutdown without the use of a mouse or keyboard.  SimAvio has leveraged their technology and morphed into a company producing FAA certified trainers. They no longer make their software available to anyone other than commercial sim builders, or those who buy their complete simulator packages.  Unfortunately these have been priced out of reach of all but the most well heeled home simmers.

The Flying...or should I say Simming...Dutchmen to the Rescue

Fortunately, a small company in the Netherlands has created an application that is similar to SimAvio's former consumer product offering.   Air Manager can run instrument panels on the same computer as your flight sim, but it's most  attractive use is running instruments on a separate computer. The two are networked via WiFi or Ethernet.  Where do you get the instruments to build a panel? It is actually pretty simple.  The program connects to an online store where there are currently over one-hundred-sixty ready made instruments. Many of these are the work of other Air Manager users and all are available for free download. YES, I said free!  Once downloaded, these instruments can be re-sized and arranged to create complete instrument panels,  The software package also allows users to modify downloaded instruments or to create their own custom instruments and panels.  Buttons, switches and dials on the instruments can be manipulated and their functions are "synced" with the corresponding controls in your flight sim.  If one has a touchscreen monitor, touch control is available for all these functions eliminating the need for mouse and keyboard. 

 A Beechcraft Baron B58 Air Manager panel that is available free and works with FSX, P3D and X-Plane

A Beechcraft Baron B58 Air Manager panel that is available free and works with FSX, P3D and X-Plane

The non-commercial version of the application is relatively cheap at about 25€ ( under US$ 28) and can be quickly downloaded from the company's website.  Installation includes two steps.  First run the installer for the OS platform you are using, (there are versions for Mac OS, Windows, and Linux) and next,  install the plugin for the Flight Sim you are using (X-Plane, FSX, and P3D are all supported). There is an online Wiki with details of  the rather straight-forward process,  Then, if you are running your panel on a remote computer, you need only enter the IP address of the machine that is running your flight sim into Air Manager's  "Settings" tab as shown below.  This opens the two way communication link between Air Manager and your simulator. "Settings" tab  inputs are also available for selecting the current sim in use and whether mouse or touch control are being used. 

Below: My home sim running an Air Manager panel along with  X-Plane and a view on final to Aspen-Pitkin Airport (KASE Aspen,CO )

The Online tab shows a scrolling list of all available Air Manager instruments which can be downloaded with a single click.

Although the interface could be more elegant, it consists of  an easy to use single window with four tabs.  Clicking the tab  titled "Instruments" brings up a graphical catalog showing all the instruments currently available for free download.  Simply clicking the "Get" button below a thumbnail  image causes the instrument to download to your computer.  If a previously downloaded instrument has been updated since you got it, the button will read "Update" and can be updated with a single click. "Remove" deletes the instrument from your computer.

Once downloaded, your instruments are listed in the "Create/Edit" tab shown below.  New instruments can be created and downloaded instruments can be edited or even "Cloned" for use as the template for a new instrument.  This tab also allows the instrument to be run without an operating simulator, as shown with the Attitude Indicator instrument below.  

This allows for rapid testing during development.  Test values can be entered into the fields for each variable and sent to the instrument to test for proper response.  In this  multi platform example you can see there are  variable inputs for both FSX and X-Plane (as shown by the different adjacent icons).

The final Air Manager interface tab is the "Instruments" tab shown on the right.  Here, downloaded instruments can be added to a list of the panel layout and actually used along with your sim.  Instruments can be re-sized and dragged to the desired location on the screen. There is a show/hide icon next to each instrument in this list to control it's visibility on your desktop.  Instruments are usually grouped into a panel for a specific airplane type and the entire layout can be shown or hidden with a single click.  In fact you can associate a group with a specific airplane type in your sim and have the panel automatically become visible and active as that airplane is loaded for a flight. 

Once things are up and running it seems rather magic.  Operating a switch either on the panel or the sim causes the corresponding control to move on the other screen.  For example indicator needles, digital readouts, warning lights all seem to work perfectly without any noticeable lag.  Toggle switches and buttons are very intuitive in touch control responding to a simple tap of the finger.  For Touch Control with knobs, a press on the knob generates a blue highlight circle indication around  the perimeter of the selected knob.  

Then, by sliding the finger outside the circle ,  a circular motion around the highlighted area in the desired direction rotates the knob accordingly.  It seems quite natural after the first few tries.  The only difficulty I had was with dual concentric knobs like those on a radio frequency selector.  There is an inner knob and outer knob and finding the narrow band where the outer(lower) knob face is exposed between the inner and outer is a bit tricky.  I understand that Air Manager will be revised to solve this problem but it takes quite a bit more attention to operate these compared to a real outer frequency knob.  Other knobs operate naturally and require no more attention than operating a knob in the real airplane .  Overall, the use of the touch cockpit is very realistic and I have been able to fly simulated flights from start to shutdown without a single keystroke or mouse click.

Above is a fairly detailed panel based on the layout of the freeware Eclipse 550 Very Light Jet for X-Plane.  This is an example of an instrument created by one user and modified by others.  In this way Air Manager development is often a community affair.  In the video below, you can see the Eclipse panel in action on a simulated flight demonstrating  the use of Touch Control,  a recent addition to Air Manager.

Never Say Never

Now once you try Air Manager,...  even though you think you never will..  you will eventually be enticed to look under the hood and try to figure out how the instruments are made.   From first curious gaze at a Lua script it is usually only a a matter of time before you will attempt to actually modify and create your own instruments.  WARNING: Once you start this process it is easy to become addicted.  

An instrument on your computer consists of a main folder that contains the following:  

1) graphics files folder ( PNG images for instrument background, needles, buttons, knobs, ect) , 

2) a single Lua script file. Lua is a fairly simple scripting language used to make  many of today's popular and complex video games.  This script causes the graphical elements to be positioned, moved and rotated in respond to, and to interact with, the simulator, and 

3) an info file which stores basic instrument info like name, size, author and comments for the user.  

Instrument Building:  Ready, Paint, Code

Instrument creation consists of three main tasks.  

First, in preparation, you need to gather pictures of the actual instrument and fully understand it's function.  For a simple airspeed indicator it is pretty quick and simple.  For a more complex instrument, like an advanced GPS,  it could include considerable study of the manuals in order to develop a scheme to reverse engineer its operational characteristics in Air Manager. 

The second task is to create all the necessary graphics for the instrument.  They are created as PNG files with transparency so that moving layers can be "stacked" over the background reproducing the look of the actual instrument. Your favorite graphics program will serve you well but there are online tutorials for Air Manager on the use of the windows application Skinman.  This niche freeware application, originally designed for sound engineers to create virtual audio mixer interfaces, allows the creation of 3D looking 2D graphics that can be quite realistic.   This eliminates the tedium and difficulty of Blender or other 3D rendering programs.  Most of the examples included in  this review were created with Skinman and freeware . 

The final step is creating the Lua script to operate the instrument using one of the various freeware or commercial Lua editors.  You need to determine the underlying variables and events (FSX,P3D) or DataRefs and commands (X-Plane) that have the data needed for your instrument. Online documentation for these are linked from buttons on the "Create/Edit" tab in AIr Manager.  The program allows your script to "subscribe" to these data so that their values are transmitted to your instrument whenever they change.  Then your script can convert that data value to some action with the graphic elements.  For example, in the case of an Airspeed indicator, it may just be rotation of the needle image over the static background according to some formula that relates speed to the angular rotation of the needle. One instrument script can subscribe to both FSX/P3D and X-Plane data so that the instrument can function with any of the possible sim variants.  Similarly, operating an interface item on the instrument can cause your script to transmit an event or value to your Simulator.  

Many times, one can clone an existing instrument of the same type you want to build, replace the graphics with your airplane's unique look, and then modify the script as necessary to tweak any needed minor changes,  Later, as you learn more about Lua, you can start creating scripts from scratch.  Air manager offers extensive tutorials on instrument creation for the more curious to peruse.

Now I know creating instrument panels might be beyond some users, but for all the brilliant guys in the sim community that build complete aircraft models, this should be fairly straight forward. After all, they already have the graphics and understand the logic of their aircraft. I think it would be really neat if some of these developers started offering 2-D Air Manager panels to complement their aircraft designs.

On the Horizon

Air Manager is currently in beta testing as an iPad app, seems to be progressing well, and should soon be available.  This has required a re-coding of the entire graphics rendering engine from Javafx  to OpenGL.  This change will also be included in the next desktop version and will reportedly produce as much as a five fold increase in the speed of it's already respectable frame rates.  Air Manager also has an OpenGL based  Raspberry PI version in  development that can be previewed in the  video below running a glass cockpit at about 45 FPS...not bad for a $35 computer.  An Android version is also planned,  The mobile and Raspberry versions will only "run" the instrument files which must be created on the desktop application. 

I also tried to run Air Manager on an inexpensive Win 8.1 tablet with interesting results.

The Bottom Line

Air Manager does a good job of creating and operating external monitor 2D Instrument panels for X-Plane, FSX, and P3D.  Although there is a significant learning curve until you will be building your own scratch instruments, there are hundreds of free instruments already available for download and inclusion into your panels.  It is also difficult not to like the low price (less than $30 for home use).  Another plus is the open source feel to the instruments which are mostly user created and shared among fellow users and sim enthusiasts.  

My only real complaint is the absence, so far, of any higher level navigation display instruments and GPS.  A Garmin 530 and G1000 are sadly missing.  It is possible to carve out a "hole" in your Air Manager panel and use the empty space to place some third party solution but ideally these instruments should  be available as native Air Manager instruments.   

Air Manager was originally released as an X-Plane only product.  The number of instruments in the store for the FSX/P3D simulator platforms is still slightly behind.  Also, LVARS and offsets are not currently accessible but Air Manager 's development team says that they are aware of the need and it is planned for inclusion in the next free upgrade.

If you have always wanted a separate instrument panel monitor, especially a touchscreen, Air Manager will probably fill the bill.  Even without a touchscreen it really enhances the simulation experience. With some 20-24" touchscreens available below $300, it may finally be time to give it a try.  If the Air Manager user base grows in the future it could provide a complete and diverse offering of instruments for home cockpit builders.  In the meantime, if you have a laptop or old computer sitting around the house, it's modest cost makes it worth giving Air Manager a try.

Air Manager Website:

-Captain Russ Barlow