2020 vision: Countdown to the FAA’s ADS-B Out deadline

Midnight on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019, is a time and date that has been hammered home to any user of U.S. airspace on a frequent basis over the past few years. But, for those unaware of its significance, it’s the deadline for compliance with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast Out, or ADS-B Out, mandate. This calls for all aircraft — including part 27 and part 29 rotorcraft — currently required to have a transponder to be equipped with DO-260B ADS-B Out-compliant extended-squitter Mode S transponders and associated GPS receivers. This means those required to comply now have less than 18 months to do so — and at current install rates, not all aircraft will make the deadline.

ADS-B surveillance has significantly improved safety and efficiency for all operations in airspace where radar was never possible. Westwind Helicopters has installed the L3 Lynx NGT-9000 systems so that the company is not only compliant with the 2020 ADS-B mandate, but also provides pilots another level of safety. Dan Megna Photo
ADS-B surveillance has significantly improved safety and efficiency for all operations in airspace where radar was never possible. Westwind Helicopters has installed the L3 Lynx NGT-9000 systems so that the company is not only compliant with the 2020 ADS-B mandate, but also provides pilots another level of safety. Dan Megna Photo
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ADS-B Out is an avionics technology that transmits GPS-based position and other data via extended squitter Mode S transponders to a ground station network that is linked to air traffic control. Information “squits” like identification, GPS position, altitude, velocity, and quality and integrity data are made available for an air traffic controller’s situational awareness.

The FAA’s successor to tracking aircraft and separating them by radar, ADS-B Out is just one part of the regulator’s multi-faceted NextGen effort to modernize the U.S. air transportation system. The aim with ADS-B Out is to increase the efficiency, capacity and safety of air traffic management.

According to Federal Aviation Regulations (91.227) published in August 2010, ADS-B Out equipment must be approved to either TSO-C154c (universal access transceivers, or UAT) or TSO-C166b (1090 MHz extended-squitter transponder). Somewhat confusingly, even though the former is called a universal access transceiver, the 978 MHz UAT is actually less universal than the 1090 MHz ES transponder in terms of where it can fly and what airspace it can use. Extended-squitter Mode S transponder equipment compliant with TSO-C166b will be required in order to operate In Class A airspace (above 18,000 feet) in accordance with Federal Aviation Regulation 91.225. Rotorcraft that never fly in Class A airspace can be upgraded to a 1090 extended-squitter transponder, or can be equipped to comply by installing a 978 MHz UAT, which is meant for the lower altitude operations of most rotorcraft.

The avionics modifications for required for medium and heavy helicopters can be comprehensive. Typically, this can include replacing a flight management system with a wide area augmentation system (WAAS)-capable unit, replacing both legacy transponders with Mode S extended-squitter versions, adding wiring and a failure annunciation somewhere, testing,  and, of course, gaining the all-important approved data. Some operators in this class will opt for cheap and cheerful “bolt-on” solutions, meeting the mandate but not doing anything for the navigation solution presented to the crew.

Some avionics mod shops and integrators still have capacity to do the mandatory avionics equipment installations prior to the deadline, but operators who haven’t begun the process of booking slots may be setting the stage for a crisis in demand, with long wait times and “overs” as the deadline approaches. But, there is capacity if you can commit now.

Why is it happening?

Let’s digress for a moment. We’re hearing a lot about ADS-B Out, but what is ADS-B In? This refers to reception of ADS-B Out broadcasts by aircraft equipped with ADS-B In avionics, but there isn’t any mandate for this, yet. Further to that, there is ADS-C (Contract). This is an element of Future Air Navigation Systems, replacing HF position reporting with tracking using a datalink and SATCOM. Mandates are in place for ADS-C in remote and oceanic operations.

Aircraft operating in U.S. airspace must be equipped with ADS-B Out capabilities by Jan. 1, 2020. Mike Reyno Photo
Aircraft operating in U.S. airspace must be equipped with ADS-B Out capabilities by Jan. 1, 2020. Mike Reyno Photo

Air navigation service providers like the FAA were motivated to make the change to ADS-B as it allowed them to decommission expensive aging secondary surveillance radars (SSRs). And, as it was never possible to deploy SSR in remote regions like Alaska and Canada’s North, those areas don’t get radar surveillance, period. Comparatively, ADS-B sites are much less expensive to install.

Another benefit offered by ADS-B Out is a much faster update rate (once per second), better position accuracy, aircraft state and intent information, and it should ultimately allow more helicopters to use existing airspace with equivalent or better safety and efficiency. Finally, there is the “green” movement to be taken into account. Nav Canada estimates that in the Hudson Bay/Minto airspace sectors, ADS-B Out will save airline customers an estimated $374 million in fuel by 2020, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 982,000 metric tons.

While there are definite benefits to the technology, uptake among owners and operators has been slow. According to the FAA’s figures, only 2,411 of the 13,195 active civil rotorcraft registered in the U.S. had been equipped with rule-compliant ADS-B Out technology as of mid-July. Of course, we don’t know how many of these helicopters will ultimately operate in the airspace affected by the rule, but still, one of the reasons for that small percentage seems to be that the end of 2019 is still too far in the future to be considered an urgent matter to owners and operators. One of the most common reasons avionics shops hear operators give for delaying the modification is that they may sell the aircraft before the 2020 mandate kicks in. The flip side is that selling a helicopter that isn’t equipped with ADS-B Out in this market against similar models that are equipped will not be easy.

Pro Star Aviation, based in Londonderry, New Hampshire, is a major player in the U.S helicopter avionics mod business. Jeffrey Shaw, the company’s director of business development, told Vertical that it is currently doing the back-to-back modification of four Sikorsky S-76s to comply with the mandate.

“Rockwell Collins has an STC [supplemental type certificate] for three of these machines, and an existing fixed-wing equipment pairing will be used as a basis for the other Honeywell-equipped S-76,” he said.

However, such preemptive work seems to be the exception to the rule.

“Our normal clientele are heavy VIP-style rotorcraft — S-76 and [Leonardo] AW139,” said Shaw. “The entire business aviation sector of the market is pretty slow to adopt ADS-B Out, and the helicopter segment is even slower than fixed-wing. . . . One reason it’s been slow is there haven’t been solutions out there until recently. And one thing helicopter operators are not very tolerant of is downtime.”

Shaw said his main concern for an operator would be that the mod shops who can reliably take on an ADS-B Out install can also afford to be choosy about the type of work they take on in the current environment. For example, a standalone ADS-B Out install would not be at the top of their list if there was a cabin connectivity job on a G550 on offer. Even for a long-time loyal client, Shaw said Pro Star Aviation is probably at least four months out from taking in any aircraft to do an ADS-B Out install.

With concerns about whether operators will meet the 2020 deadline, the U.S. Congress has requested that the Department of Transportation Office of the Inspector General explore equipage rates for ADS-B and other NextGen technologies on aircraft, as well as the reasons operators decide to equip their aircraft. It has also requested an assessment of the plans in place for meeting the 2020 ADS-B Out deadline. This audit was due to begin in June, but the FAA emphatically says it will not postpone the compliance date.

The benefits of making the change

Besides getting ahead of the crunch, there are other benefits to getting ADS-B Out sooner rather than later. The infrastructure is complete and ADS-B Out is available, and there may be some low-altitude special treatment available from air traffic control. On top of this, at least one avionics manufacturer offers a trade-in credit incentive for the removed transponders for early adopters.

Life is also getting easier for those looking to install the technology. Guidance material for ADS-B Out on-aircraft installations on N-registered machines, which those in the avionics business live by, continues to evolve. Installers can now reference data from previous STCs and install new equipment on a different aircraft.

The FAA’s ADS-B AFS-360 Focus Team released a technical paper (AFS-360-2017-1) in September of last year to provide additional clarity for ADS-B Out policy. The agency has streamlined the type design approval of ADS-B Out installations, and some field approvals are now being allowed, but the rotorcraft flight manual supplement still needs to be signed off by the FAA.

In August 2017, the FAA released a legal interpretation that clarifies that the aircraft Flight ID (aircraft registration or call sign) must synchronize to the aircraft’s flight plan. If the aircraft operates, or is likely to operate, with a changeable call sign, the ADS-B Out installation must be able to support pilot-entered Flight ID in order to be rule-compliant. This can affect emergency medical services (EMS) rotorcraft operators, who will need support in their modified avionics fit for flight crews to be able to change their ADS-B Out Flight ID to align with their flight plan call sign.

The FAA has set up an Equip ADS-B website to be the core information source for operators to get the list of FAA-reviewed ADS-B equipment pairings, and to find answers to frequently asked questions regarding policy and ADS-B Out compliance.

Avionics OEMs continue to release new ADS-B hardware, and the competition is increasing the number of options available to operators of part 27 and 29 helicopters. Just one example is Becker Avionics with the BXT6500 Mode S Transponder series, which is designed specifically for single antenna applications across all fixed- and rotary-wing applications. With a FreeFlight 1203C SBAS/GNSS sensor, these remote-mounted transponders provide another solution for the mandate. In addition to providing ADS-B compliance, the system features enhanced privacy settings that can disable both ADS-B and Mode S transmissions — a feature Becker says is unique to the BXT6500 family.

Wider adoption

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There are interesting discussions going on between the military, the FAA, and other “three-letter agencies” on the feasibility of “cloaking” ADS-B Out transmissions to ensure the privacy of sensitive missions. ADS-B Out is easy to receive, even by hobbyists, making state aircraft potentially more vulnerable to tracking. This emerging concern may be a reason why ADS-B Out adoption rates for the armed forces is relatively low. The U.S. Army says it is still aiming for fleet-wide installation of the necessary ADS-B Out avionics, but it will request exemptions for an unspecified number of aircraft that will not be in compliance by the 2020 drop-dead date.

Another interesting consideration is for those rotorcraft working in the offshore industry. The operators and lessors of these aircraft, which are often on the move to a different operating region, must keep track of worldwide ADS-B Out rules and plans. Brazil, with its large Campos Basin, was the first to mandate ADS-B Out, but north of the 49th parallel, there is cautious and methodical progress towards a proposal for such a move in Canada. That said, Nav Canada has already been providing tactical surveillance separation in certain airspace using ADS-B Out technology for the best part of a decade.

Daryl MacIntosh, president and general manager of Maxcraft Avionics, based in Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, said the company often performs ADS-B Out installations while doing other avionics work on aircraft.

“It’s a form of insurance, say for a local client with an AW139, who may have to do a charter to Seattle from the B.C. lower mainland,” he told Vertical. “We came up with a Garmin UAT-based solution for them . . . . And what is also interesting are the Canadian wildfire attack contractors sending helicopters and crews to the U.S. to fight fires — they’re not thinking about ADS-B Out yet, [but] I wonder if the U.S. Forest Service has updated their requirements to have ADS-B Out equipment.”

If and when Canadian ADS-B Out rulemaking launches, Aireon satellite-based ADS-B Out will very likely be part of the eventual mix. Nav Canada is a founding partner in the Aireon joint venture that has ADS-B receivers carried on the Iridium NEXT satellites. Aireon claims that space-based ADS-B surveillance will bypass the limitations of ground-based SSR radar, Wide Area Multilateration (WAM) and ground-based ADS-B surveillance systems.

The Edmonton Flight Information Region will go live utilizing space-based ADS-B Out in late 2018, and it will be the first to operationally use space-based ADS-B Out in its airspace. Aireon is expected to be central to any expansion of Canadian coverage, with the possibility of additional ground-based coverage following consultation with users.

The satellite payloads receive ADS-B Out signals broadcast from aircraft equipped with 1090 MHz extended-squitter ADS-B transponders, which operate on the same frequency as traditional Mode A/C/S transponders. UAT operates at a different frequency, and won’t be supported by Aireon.

Northern and remote operators could benefit in other ways when they equip with ADS-B Out. In uncontrolled airspace, there is a certain reliance on monitoring TCAS traffic, but there will be more visibility now. Aireon says it will provide the location and track of ADS-B-equipped aircraft to assist in search-and-rescue, at no additional cost to registered users.

What does the future hold? A good guess might be a change to Canada airspace to require DO-260B 1090ES ADS-B Out after the U.S. date. C-reg operators needing to run schedule, charters, corporate flights and special ops, such as medevac into the United States, will have already equipped for the U.S. mandate. As will those needing to pass through U.S. airspace to approach close-to-border Canadian airports, such as Victoria and Abbotsford.

The U.S. ADS-B Out rule date will not change. Seeing it approach is like looking through a viewfinder and seeing an image become increasingly clear. And for those required to operate in U.S. airspace, there are many benefits to getting ahead of the mandate. The risks of not doing so, and missing the deadline altogether, could be severe.

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