While misconceptions about the Federal Aviation Administration’s Jan. 1, 2020 mandate to install digital transponders have slowed helicopter operators’ adoption of Automatic Dependence Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) Out technologies, equipment suppliers, helicopter manufacturers and helicopter operators appear to be stepping up their game to meet the deadline.
“The interest level and inquiry level has increased dramatically in the last six months,” said David Oglesbee, director of sales and marketing at Florida-based Becker Avionics. “Many operators have begun an earnest search for the right solution.”
In 2009, the FAA launched ADS-B in the Gulf of Mexico. In a joint effort with Helicopter Association International, the Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference, helicopter operators and oil platform companies, the federal government installed ADS-B transmitters and weather observation and communications equipment on 12 offshore platforms, and operators equipped their helicopters with ADS-B avionics.
The following year, FAA finalized regulations 14 CFR § 91.225 and 14 CFR § 91.227, requiring aircraft operating in most controlled airspace to have an ADS-B Out system to broadcast the aircraft's position and other information. ADS-B In systems to receive the broadcasts and messages from the ground network, such as Traffic Information Service-Broadcast and Flight Information Service-Broadcast, are not required, but if an operator chooses to equip an aircraft with ADS-B In avionics, a compatible display is also necessary to see the information.
Like radar, ADS-B pinpoints the location of helicopters and aircraft and has increasingly allowed operators to fly in inclement weather. But the FAA is encouraging the move away from radar to ADS-B, which the FAA heralds as an environmentally friendly NextGen technology permitting precise tracking using satellite signals.
With ADS-B In, pilots for the first time see what controllers see: displays showing other aircraft in the sky. Cockpit displays also pinpoint hazardous weather and terrain, and give pilots important flight information, such as temporary flight restrictions.
The ADS-B Out equipage rate for helicopters in the United States is about 40 percent — a lag due to a number of factors, including industry inertia, misperceptions that ADS-B Out is only required for Instrument Flight Rules operations, a relatively low number of civil helicopters operating in Class B/C airspace above 10,000 feet that requires ADS-B Out and the delayed availability of FAA-certificated ADS-B Out helicopter solutions until the last few years.
“I don’t believe there is a ‘group think’ type answer as to why the helicopter industry might be a little bit slower statistically to respond to the ADS-B mandate,” Oglesbee said. “I have been told a variety of reasons for waiting, including they have it scheduled during their annual or other maintenance, or they intend to sell the aircraft prior to the mandate becoming effective, or they want to finish up their busy season before taking the aircraft down or some other reason. Everyone I’ve spoken to is aware of the mandate and has a method to comply in their mind.”
“As a manufacturer, we have prepared with adequate stock and supply chain to meet those who have delayed meeting that compliance,” Oglesbee added.
Becker Avionics is marketing its BXT-6500 transponder series as a “robust” and “cost-effective” ADS-B compliant solution that “combines unique customer benefits, such as reduced size and weight, durable housing without ventilation slots or forced cooling, antenna diversity or single antenna configurations, digital interfaces and TCAS [traffic alert and collision avoidance system] compatibility.”
Kansas-based Garmin International said that it, too, has stocked up on company-produced equipment to help busy helicopter operators get ADS-B Out solutions on their fleets rapidly.
“In anticipation of a large demand, Garmin has product in stock and is ready to ship ADS-B solutions for helicopters today,” said Jessica Koss, a spokeswoman for Garmin International.
“These ADS-B solutions include the GTX 345/GTX 335 ADS-B transponders, the GDL 82 low-cost ADS-B Out solution, the GDL 84, the GDL 88, and, for operators who already have a GTX 330, they can easily add an ES [extended squitter] upgrade to their existing transponder,” Koss added.
“Because so many of these helicopters are considered ‘working helicopters,’ having product in stock and ready to ship is essential to helping these operators equip when they’re ready,” she said. “Depending on what helicopter operators want to get out of their ADS-B installation, Garmin has a variety of solutions available — those that integrate with existing avionics and portables/tablets on board and those that are ADS-B Out-only.”
The FAA's Equip 2020 working group, established in 2014 by then-deputy FAA administrator Mike Whitaker, provides quarterly updates on ADS-B equipped aircraft.
“HAI continues to work closely with operators and manufacturers to fully support industry efforts to achieve ADS-B system compliance by the 2020 deadline,” said Chris Martino, vice president of operations at HAI. “Although the U.S. helicopter fleet compliance rate is just under 40 percent at this time, it must be recognized that many helicopters will not be required to install ADS-B equipment, depending on the intended operating areas for the aircraft.”
“The key to success for full implementation remains the robust cooperative interactions between the operators, manufacturers and installers,” he said. “Important government/industry teams, including the Equip 2020 Working Group, are doing a noteworthy job keeping industry focused on the issues as well as providing recommendations to mitigate problems. The bottom line is that the tools are available to enable operators to succeed.”
Airbus said that all new H125 helicopters sold in the United States already have an ADS-B Out compliant GTX-335R transponder supplied by Garmin. That transponder is a type certificated approved standard for H125, H130, H135 and H145 helicopters around the world, Airbus said. In addition, Airbus said that helicopter operators with its rotorcraft are able to utilize supplemental type certificates to retrofit existing fleets with the Garmin GTX-335R for EC120B, AS350, EC130, AS355, and some EC135s. Helicopter operators with Airbus AS350s, EC130s, and AS355s can also use STCs to retrofit their fleets with the Texas-based FreeFlight Systems’ FDL-978 series ADS-B Out transponders.
For its part, Bell said it has a head start on ADS-B Out, as it adopted such technology early on and participates in the FAA’s Equip 2020 initiative.
“Bell put measures into place back in 2015 to assure that all commercial models coming off the assembly line were equipped with the mandated ADS-B Out capability as standard factory equipment well before the mandate,” according to the company. “This includes the Bell 505, 407GX/GXi, 429, 412EPI, and 525 models. Bell elected to equip its models with 1090ES (extended squitter) ADS-B Out which makes these installations acceptable all over the world.”
The long pole in the tent, yet again, is how to retrofit ADS-B Out equipment on existing fleets of busy helicopters.
“Bell recognizes that due to the wide variety of equipment installed, the best path to ADS-B is often dependent on other equipment already installed, and whether a GPS is installed,” according to Bell. “For models such as the Bell 407 and 206 which were customized with Garmin navigation systems, Bell has developed and certified ADS-B kits that are available through Bell Aeronautical Accessories and its Bell Piney Flats, Tennessee, facility.”
Is it possible that, had helicopter operators understood the FAA mandate better, more helicopter fleets needing ADS-B Out would have it today?
While hindsight is 20/20, Jens Hennig, the vice president of operations at the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), has said “we would have simplified the discussion around ADS-B a great deal if we had simply called the equipment and associated mandate what it is: a 21st century digital transponder that just happens to augment the transponder interrogation with a more accurate GPS position and some related data.”