Sharper Eyes on the Gulf

By Staff Writer | May 1, 2004
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Operators and energy companies in the Gulf of Mexico are pushing the U.S. government for better communications and weather services for helicopter flights, and turning to commercial vendors for support while the feds make up their minds.

Helicopter operators in the Gulf of Mexico and the energy companies whose operations there they support have been pushing the U.S. FAA to improve on the communications, navigation and weather services provided in the region.

They have offered free real estate and transportation to the federal agency in exchange for its installation of automated equipment on oil and gas rigs to support those services. They have struggled to win funding from Congress for their efforts.


But those efforts have not progressed very far since last August, when HAI President Roy Resavage described them as halfway to completion.

"It's on second base," he said. "Now it depends on who steps up to the plate."

Operators in the Gulf are used to little attention from the FAA and Washington. In fact, some may prefer that to having visits from those who say, "We're from the government and we're here to help." Rather than wait for Washington to come around, offshore support operators have long relied on their own efforts and those of vendors to boost the safety and efficiency of their operations. They're doing that now in this latest period of bureaucratic procrastination, which presents opportunities to vendors of advanced flight tracking and communications systems like OuterLink, Sky Connect and Blue Sky Network.

HAI has rallied industry to the effort for collaboration on navigation, communications and weather upgrades in the Gulf of Mexico, and in fact major players from both the energy and the helicopter industries have stepped up to the plate.

Their proposal calls for setting up communications relay stations and weather-reporting facilities on platforms throughout the Gulf. Platform operators would make available scarce space on their facilities for the comm and weather gear, and offshore operators would provide transportation for the government technicians needed to keep that gear running properly.

HAI estimates the effort would cost $27 million over 20 years. Most of that would be an upfront investment of about $12 million for automated surface observing systems and VHF transceivers/repeaters. The FAA would have to spend about $500,000 a year to maintain the gear. Of the $27 million total, offshore industry members would cover about $8 million in donated space, transportation and support.

Efforts have progressed to the point where an agreement has been drafted. It is being reviewed by lawyers for the energy companies, helicopter operators and the FAA. That is progress. But chief pilots of those operating in the Gulf moaned at the news during a recent meeting of HAI's offshore committee. They said they have little hope of swift replies from the lawyers, and less hope for a swift agreement.

As those efforts have evolved, industry officials have shifted gears a bit. Now they propose to link their pursuit of better services in the Gulf to the FAA's automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast program.

Under the automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast concept, an aircraft broadcasts its position at regular intervals. The broadcast includes latitude and longitude, plus altitude and airspeed (all of which are based on GPS satellite signals), and can include other information. The broadcasts can be picked up by air traffic control systems and by capable units on other aircraft. The system is not dependent on radar. That makes it appealing to Gulf operators, since it could provide coverage for the many aircraft that fly below 1,500 ft.-and therefore below radar coverage-over Gulf waters.

ADS-B's advanced air traffic control technology has been in development since the late 1990s and was tested successfully-and to much praise-among operators in Alaska. There it demonstrated the ability to increase situational awareness among flight crews and increase the accuracy of ATC tracking of aircraft. The FAA has backed the technology sufficiently to convince Garmin and other avionics makers to support the effort with the development of onboard, ADS-B based communications and navigation gear.

"We've been hollering about weather and communications in the Gulf for ages," said one top industry official. "But the best way to get funding in Washington today is the ADS-B program. If we package our efforts together with it, we will get ADS-B in the Gulf, which will give us what we need."

Perhaps. While automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast is a darling project of the FAA and some aviation industry segments, it is not a sure thing. The latest proposed FAA budget, for instance, calls for a 16-percent cut in air traffic control spending, which could lead to significant slow downs in the implementation of ADS-B. That could make it difficult to get automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast extended to the Gulf of Mexico. It is available now in Alaska and parts of the U.S. East Coast.

The new service also would require installation of new avionics on helicopters, which raises an important question, said Gary Guerrero, chief pilot for ChevronTexaco's Gulf of Mexico operations. "How are some of the smaller operators going to be able to afford ADS-B?" The current industry effort to entice the FAA to improve navcomm and weather services in the Gulf would use existing VHF and GPS avionics.

An underlying problem in the Gulf is that most bureaucratic and budgetary attention paid to the region by Washington has focused largely on high-altitude traffic between the U.S. and Latin America. There has been little recognition that nearly 10 times as many aircraft fly below 1,500 ft. there as fly above 18,000 ft.

A new wrinkle is that as energy companies have pushed exploration and production further out into the Gulf, flight operations have started to go beyond the airspace controlled by the United States. Operators face the prospect of having to work with other nation's air traffic control organizations on improving coverage of their flights.

Private vendors offer the ability to do that. While they can not provide coordinated air traffic services over the Gulf, they can do flight following and tracking and provide options for operators to communicate with their aircraft.

OuterLink Corp. is a pioneer of such services in the Gulf. It worked with ChevronTexaco in 2000 and 2001 to develop and prove the capabilities of its system. That energy company was sold, opting to fit its aircraft fleet in the Gulf with the OuterLink system.

"We feel it's one of the things that helps us keep our safety so high," ChevronTexaco's Guerrero said. "We know in an instant where any one of our aircraft are."

The system includes a CP-2 mobile terminal installed the aircraft, linked to separate small-patch receive and transmit antennas. The CP-2 is a satellite transceiver with built-in GPS that transmits location reports, data and crew messages to a customer's operations center and receives messages sent to the aircraft. It provides automatic position reports for tracking without pilot intervention at a rate specified by the customer. When you hit the Mayday switch on its control/display unit, the CP-2 transmits emergency-mode messages every 15 sec.

As OuterLink's founder and president, Paul Newcomb, explained, the pilot arms the system before takeoff. After that, he doesn't have to be concerned with voice-based location reports. This system automatically tracks the aircraft.

At the operations center, OuterLink's CommTrack software helps dispatchers follow flights by generating a map of automated position reports and permitting historical playback of flight tracks. It also generates visual and audible "Mayday" and missed-report alarms. The CommText software module lets the dispatcher send text messages to the aircraft and receive such messages to monitor the aircraft's status.

"After three missed reports, the system notifies the control center-'We're not hearing from this guy"-and gives the last location, altitude, ground speed and heading," Newcomb said. "If the aircraft is over water, it gives immediate notification."

OuterLink's data is carried over the Mobile Satellite Ventures 2 geosynchronous satellite, which provides coverage of North America. Newcomb said the company is investigating using another satellite to extend coverage to other parts of the world.

Other vendors are doing that now, as well as offering voice communications on top of data services.

Sky Connect, LLC, for instance, uses the Iridium satellite network for its Tracker global flight tracking service, which the company says can be linked to any authorized personal computer. Sky Connect's partner, Flight Explorer, provides customers with its Professional software-a sophisticated tool for recording flight events and monitoring and receiving notifications on status of aircraft. Flight Explorer's services originally were focused on aircraft operating IFR. The link to Sky Connect's Tracker lets it perform the same monitoring and tracking functions for aircraft flying VFR, said Sky Connect senior vice president Wiley Loughran.

The Tracker service provides pole-to-pole coverage of customers' aircraft. Its standard reports include aircraft registration number, time/ date and real-time, GPS-based position, altitude, ground speed, and ground track. Optional reporting data can include flight plan changes, systems monitoring, fuel status, limit alarms, and emergency alerts. Pilots or controllers can manually send messages via email, pager, cell phone voice or text message, or a spoken audio alert on the ground computer's speaker. The pilot also can send a message through a pop-up box on the Flight Explorer display.

Tracker permits flight monitoring from multiple locations simultaneously, Loughran said, so a dispatcher, flight operations manager and CEO can all check full or filtered real-time flight status of a company's fleet. Flight tracks are recordable for review and debriefing.

Tracker can be paired with one of Sky Connect's Iridium telephone services to provide voice communications capabilities. The system's tracking and voice modules share an Iridium transceiver and antenna. Loughran said the fully certified Tracker system adds about 6 lb. to the aircraft. Aircraft not equipped to handle GPS-based signals can use a dual-element antenna and Tracker's own onboard GPS receiver.

Also using the Iridium system is Blue Sky Network, whose D1000 aircraft tracking and two-way messaging system and SkyRouter server software form a packet data network for exchanging data and voice communications between an aircraft and ground station. Blue Sky supports near real-time flight tracking, two-way messaging between aircraft and ground, and user-defined customized telemetry reporting for fleet management.

The D1000 terminal includes an embedded GPS transceiver, emergency backup battery and a single antenna feed for both GPS and Iridium signaling. When used with a browser-based device such as PDA or laptop, the unit allows sending and receiving e-mail messages. Data is rapidly transferred from D1000 terminals on aircraft from anywhere in the world via the SkyRouter server network. The terminal weighs about 6 lb.

Through a standard Ethernet connection to the unit, a customer can set and change the reporting variables within the D1000, including frequency of position reporting and origin and destination of flights, among other items. Data can be transferred from D1000 terminals on aircraft from anywhere in the world via the SkyRouter server network.

The D1000 is designed for fixed installation or portability. When portable, the modem unit and control unit fit together into a small-profile terminal weighing about 6 lb.

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