Rotor & Wing International

Revisiting ADS-B in the Gulf

In reviewing my some of my past articles, I noticed it is going on six years since I updated you on the application and progress of the FAA’s low-level “beta” program for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM).

In reviewing my some of my past articles, I noticed it is going on six years since I updated you on the application and progress of the FAA’s low-level “beta” program for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM).

This program’s major thrust is to support helicopter operations in concert with the oil and gas industry’s focus on increased safety of flight for the thousands of passengers flown to and from offshore rigs annually. Second to this is the objective of creating a more favorable economic impact for helicopter and oil and gas operations surrounding the GOM.

When the ADS-B program was envisioned in 2007 and implemented in 2009, the FAA saw it as one of several test beds for the agency’s planned nationwide implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen for short). ADS-B is a key part of that (which aims to reduce reliance on ground-based radar), and its use is mandated for aircraft using U.S.-controlled airspace by 2020.

Establishing low-level NextGen offshore in the GOM was a far more complex project than doing the same on open land in “anywhere USA.” Desired locations for ADS-B ground units and weather-reporting stations had to be matched to the positions of offshore rigs. The FAA negotiated with rig owners for space on the particular rigs and for power supply to the ADS-B setups. Transportation had to be secured for the ADS-B-related equipment and the FAA-sponsored crews to install, test and maintain it. (The partners this year renewed their agreement, covering the program for five years more.)

These alone posed sizable challenges, but they were not the only ones.

Offshore platforms are sunk into the seabed. Once positioned over hydrocarbon deposits, they are considered at least semi-permanent installations. When wells are depleted, the platform must be removed (most after being in place for years). Once the platform has been “shut in,” any ADS-B equipment on it must be removed and a new home found for it elsewhere in the Gulf. This is not easy.

Renegotiating for a new installation is a complex process involving several agencies and platform owners. Unfortunately, there are too many relocations, especially compared to on-land installations. Matters are complicated further by a constant push to enhance ADS-B coverage over the Gulf. This push may lessen as time goes by, but the shift to new drilling areas will be a constant for a long time.

Prior to ADS-B’s introduction, IFR flight in the Gulf could best be described as rudimentary for several reasons. The Gulf had been covered poorly (if at all) by radar, VORs and the FAA’s radio system. There were very few weather-reporting facilities in the Gulf, and aircraft operating there flew with steam gauges and not much avionics capability. It was difficult to comply with IFR alternate minimums requirements. An innovated grid system enabled limited IFR flight, with yearly helicopter flight operations before ADS-B in the neighborhood of 2,000 hr for the entire Gulf.

In 2009, when ADS-B became available in the Gulf, there was an immediate uptick in IFR flight hours with 5,900 recorded. By 2014, that had climbed to almost 29,000 hr. All of that increase was achieved without the use of airways and grid systems and with minimal radar coverage.

Not all of those hours were flown in the clouds, of course. The majority were flown in VFR conditions. Does it matter? Not at all. The numbers are a shining example of how effective the system is. By flying IFR clearances and routes, pilots (and controllers handling them) build experience. They can tweak the helicopter IFR system for enhanced capability.

Other factors might have contributed to the increase in IFR flight hours: the arrival of bigger medium twins, glass cockpits, advanced avionics that move our helicopters toward the airline standard for flight management and communications capability, and the longer legs enabled by the larger fuel tanks on those bigger helos.

Most operators in the Gulf have ADS-B Out capability on their helicopters. The lack of that capability early on was a choke point; operators had to cobble together basic equipment in their own avionics shops to benefit from ADS-B surveillance. Today, more avionics makers offer ADS-B for helicopters, with corresponding benefits in prices for such gear. (See “Avionics Industry Sets Table for Helicopter ADS-B,” July 2016, page 30.) It won’t be long before en route radar will be a fossil. R&WI