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Buying ADS-B: Meeting the Deadline

Questions on costs and equipment options and doubts of the FAA’s 2020 deadline leave U.S. operators reluctant to equip their helos.

Come July 31, the U.S. will be two years and five months away from the FAA’s deadline for U.S. aircraft to be equipped with automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (out) equipment. Industry associations, avionics vendors and manufacturers and the FAA itself do not understand why less than 8% of N-registered rotorcraft are ADS-B-compliant after helicopter operators had a decade to plan and complete installations. As of mid-May, the FAA and its R&D support group at Mitre say, only 1,249 of the 15,846 rotorcraft registered in the U.S. were equipped with the technology.

The probable reasons are ADS-B costs and options and an assumption the FAA will slip its deadline. Operators express confusion when it comes to the compliance process and figuring out what equipment to buy. They also harbor suspicions that the deadline will change, despite the FAA’s consistent reiterations that, come Jan. 1, 2020, all aircraft flying in designated airspace will have to be equipped to transmit ADS-B information.

The General Aviation Manufacturers Assn. (GAMA) voiced support for the latest reiteration, in late June by newly sworn-in FAA Deputy Administrator Dan Elwell. “You have heard my predecessors say this before, and I will continue to communicate this important message,” GAMA recalled Elwell saying at the NextGen Advisory Committee. “The ADS-B Out equipage mandate will not change. The Dec. 31, 2019, date is firm.”

The 92% of U.S.-registered rotorcraft that still needs to equip for ADS-B seems like an immense number. But it is important to look at it with perspective. Not all of them need to equip.

Aircraft that will be required to have ADS-B Out include those flying in U.S. Class A airspace (18,000 feet and higher, where you won’t find many helicopters). It also will be required for aircraft in Class B airspace (from the ground up within the “Mode C ring”) and Class C (from the ground up). Those flying above 10,000 feet and below 18,000 feet in the contiguous U.S. will have to have ADS-B Out, as will those flying at or above 3,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico. The FAA has also spelled out this information on the ADS-B section of its website.

Some helicopters flying agricultural and other missions may not need to equip. But for many operators in the emergency medical, law enforcement, commercial tour, corporate/VIP transport and other fields, the deadline is fast approaching.

“Not only is it time to have a plan in place, but anybody who does not have a plan in place today is behind the curve,” said Jens Hennig, VP of operations for GAMA. “Start by asking, ‘What is the capability of my aircraft today? How will I be flying it in 2020? What is the path from where I am today to 2020 to achieve that end result?’”

Photo courtesy of Knox County Sheriff's Dept.

According to professionals from the avionics and operations sides, the hardest part of getting started is figuring the cost element. There are some success stories, though. The Washoe County (Nevada) Sheriff’s Office expressed frustrations with funding in January. Its Regional Aviation Enforcement Unit (RAVEN) was unsure if it would be allocated the necessary funds to purchase ADS-B equipment — it operates the Bell Helicopter OH-58 and HH-1H. But in June, the unit said it purchased two ADS-B In/Out transponders with Garmin GDL 39s and was in the process of having them installed.

The Sheriff’s Dept. in Knox County, Tennessee, has an air unit with similar aircraft: four OH-58s built in the 1970s and a UH-1H built in 1963. When the unit’s Sgt. Tim McClelland spoke with R&WI in June, it had only begun the compliance process about a year prior.

“The biggest reason is cost,” McClelland said of the late start. “We have not been able to get a lot of information from the vendors.”

Cost, coupled with the rumors of deadline extensions and waivers, has caused ADS-B Out equipage to slip down the list of priorities, according to Vector Aerospace’s VP of business development for maintenance, repair and overhaul provider, Elvis Moniz and others.

“It is a pretty depressed market right now in the helicopter aspect of things, so people have to go in and spend this additional money to fulfill a mandate, which doesn’t make them any money back,” Moniz said. “Arguably, it’s a hard pill to swallow for some.”

He added that the cost and investment really depends on the solution and pre-existing cockpit configuration. Knox County Sheriff’s Office has aircraft with limited panel space. Instead of a remote ADS-B option, the air unit said it’s aiming to replace its current transponder (which is not Mode S) with an “all-in-one” ADS-B solution. That includes spending money to install ADS-B In.

If cost is the main concern, why spend more for ADS-B In when the current FAA mandate is only for ADS-B Out? Some say the only way to get return on the investment is to spend a little more for ADS-B In features. They include free traffic information service-broadcast (TIS-B). Operators who choose an ADS-B installation with a 978 MHz frequency universal access transceiver (UAT) also receive free flight information services-broadcast (FIS-B) with ADS-B In. (Aircraft operating above 18,000 feet are mandated to use ADS-B installations with 1090 MHz Mode S “extended squitter” transponders, which also can be used in the other “rule airspace” areas.)

The benefits of ADS-B In are seen now by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and were seen more than 10 years ago by MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C.

Photo courtesy of MedStar Transport

In the early 2000s, the FAA was installing ADS-B Out for some civilian and military operators as part of an ADS-B project. Operating as a part of critical infrastructure in the nation’s capital, MedStar said, it was granted funding by the FAA through the Safe Flight 21 program to install a Garmin GDL 90 unit on its four helicopters. Dr. Christopher Wuerker, executive director for MedStar Transport, said the company chose the Garmin MX20 informational display to take advantage of ADS-B In features. Ten years later, he has no doubt it was worth it.

“The feedback we got from the pilots was that they were very pleased with the system.” Wuerker said. “The pilots, with the additional features, got the [ADS-B In] cockpit information that they didn’t previously have, like traffic awareness and other flight information.”

The most challenging part of the installation process, he continued, was the time the aircraft spent in the shop. Since MedStar is an emergency medical service, aircraft need to be available 24/7. With four aircraft supporting three bases, MedStar had, and still has, the flexibility to put one aircraft in the shop without leaving a base lacking a helicopter. Wuerker said that MedStar is sure to try to make upgrades and modifications during scheduled maintenance. “Any time you put in new avionics or have to modify avionics systems in the helicopter, it’s complicated, expensive and time-consuming,” he said. “At the time, we had to go through that. That was not fun, but in the end, it has enhanced our mission.”

Operators of Part 29 rotorcraft appear to be ahead in ADS-B installations. Since they often fly around metropolitan areas (near big airports and their Class B airspace), transport category helicopters operators would suffer the most if they miss the deadline. Likewise, such operators stand to gain the most from meeting the mandate, said officials of Vector and of Applied Avionics.

The U.S. is not the only country requiring ADS-B installation. Applied Avionics said it is experiencing ADS-B activity in Europe and Australia (the company offers annunciators for ADS-B transponders). Vector offers two ADS-B solutions, both including In and Out in 978 (only available in the U.S.) and 1090 MHz frequencies. The aim is to make its solutions internationally capable and compliant. In the opinion of Moniz, and others, the benefits of ADS-B technology are evident.

Photo courtesy of Knox County Sheriff's Dept.

“When aircraft can see each other in real time and use repeater stations on the ground to amplify the coverage of the aircraft in real time, that’s definitely going to benefit a lot of people in managing confined airspace,” Moniz said.

For some, like the Knox County unit, the challenge is in explaining to others the necessity and benefits of ADS-B. Those in charge of the budget aren’t always familiar with aviation and the FAA. Then there is a whole other side to ADS-B that makes some operators hesitant: the ability ADS-B can give the ill-intentioned to track aircraft. But does ADS-B Out actually introduce more risk?

GAMA’s Hennig said it depends. “If you had a Mode A/C transponder before, it was more difficult to track your aircraft,” he said. “If you had a Mode S transponder, I could track you.”

He said the police and drug-interdiction communities have been very involved with the FAA, including on the margins of the Equip 2020 (the government-industry working to facilitate ADS-B compliance), “to discuss how we handle certain types of operations with respect to being able to track that aircraft, not only using the ADS-B signal but also the transponder signal.”

Hennig said there are several solutions.

One is available from Garmin. The company said that its 978 UAT ADS-B solutions are capable of broadcasting in anonymous mode, but only if the pilot has not filed a flight plan and is not requesting ATC services. This topic, however, is multifaceted and not yet resolved.

But Garmin is only one manufacturer with ADS-B offerings. The FAA’s website has a search tool for users to see what products are available to make a specific airframe ADS-B-compliant. Unfortunately, not all models, specifically older ones like the Bell Kiowa, are in the database.

The Knox County Sheriff’s Office’s purchase decision will depend “on the bottom line,” said the air unit’s Capt. Tony Chamberlain. “I have not been able to give our financial people a cost estimate, really.”

Vintage Aircraft Services’ Bill Goebel has a few tips for ADS-B buyers. The first thing he says prospective buyers should do is write down their wants, needs and current equipment. Those will dictate the kind of equipment the aircraft needs and the operators might prefer. Specific questions, he said, might ask include:

  • Do I have an electrical system?
  • Do I fly in/under Class B and C airspace?
  • Do I want to see traffic and weather?
  • What kind of panel-mount GPS navigator do I have?
  • What kind of transponder do I have?
  • What kind of encoder do I have?
  • Is my current mapping software very important to me?

When it comes time to install the ADS-B technology, Moniz suggests looking at only reputable shops. According to the FAA, about 17% of all ADS-B installations fail performance checks, mainly because installers appear to have coded the avionics incorrectly. Sticking with facilities that have experience with complex aircraft and ADS-B installations is one way to avoid mishaps, Moniz said.

In June, Knox County said its plan was to attempt to procure equipment for two aircraft per budget cycle. The process had so far been somewhat confusing, the unit said, especially when it came to understanding what ADS-B products were available and would work best for its aircraft. If Knox County’s plan is successful, the unit will meet the FAA’s deadline.

“We would prefer to [have] the enhanced situational awareness for the pilots and the aircraft,” said Lt. Kurt Mack, Knox County’s chief pilot. “We would like to take advantage of the In side of it, too. But like [Chamberlain] said, it all comes down to the money. The way we look at it, we have to comply with the Out side, so that’s what we’re going to do first.”

FAA ADS-B Exemptions

The FAA has presented two avenues for exemption from the 2020 ADS-B deadline. Exemption 12555 extends the equipage deadline for qualifying transport category aircraft until Dec. 31, 2024. This is meant for airliners, petitioned for by Airlines for America. There is also language in FAR Part 91.225 that allows requests for deviations from the ADS-B mandate with air traffic control authorization. Requests could be granted for an aircraft whose ADS-B Out installation has stopped working and needs to be flown to a site for repairs. Requests may also be granted to aircraft not equipped with ADS-B Out, if the request is made at least one hour before a proposed operation. But these exemptions are made on a case-by-case basis. RWI