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Avionics: Finding a New Way

By Staff Writer | March 1, 2007
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T IS PERHAPS THE MOST PROMISING DEVELOPMENT in airborne navigation and communications: a single system that can track aircraft without the need for radar, let each flier see the traffic nearby, and provide updates and alerts of weather and other important information.

For those reasons and its proven success in Alaska (one of the most hostile operating environments for commercial aviators), automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast thrills leaders in the rotorcraft community, none more so that those operating over the Gulf of Mexico.

It is there that the FAA has committed to making the first widespread application of ADS-B, as the system is known, beyond its "test" in Alaska and local uses in a handful of places elsewhere in the United States. The potential of ADS-B, however, begs the question: how will operators tap into it?


"ADS-B promises to change our world, and our company is committed to going down that route," said the aviation director of one offshore operator in the Gulf, who asked not to be named. "But we’re all waiting on the manufacturers [of avionics and aircraft] to tell us what’s available and what the boxes are going to cost. That’s a huge unknown."

The concern about ADS-B is a common one for Gulf operators, and will eventually become so for most operators. But it is just one of many areas of concern and interest regarding helicopter avionics systems and upgrades, ranging from options for upgrading to glass cockpits to ones for replacing older instruments with newer and more capable ones.

Regarding ADS-B, the list of those who have committed to supporting the FAA’s implementation of it in the Gulf of Mexico (starting just two years hence, if plans hold) is a who’s who of the energy exploration and production and helicopter industries. It includes Anadarko Petroleum, BHP Billiton Petroleum, BP Exploration and Production, Chevron USA, and Shell Offshore, as well as Air Logistics, Era Helicopters, Evergreen Helicopters, and PHI.

This month may start to bring some answers for them. In addition to avionics and aircraft manufacturers unveiling or updating their own ADS-B plans at Heli-Expo 2007 in Orlando, Fla., the FAA is scheduled to issue a request for offers from companies previously qualified to bid on fulfilling the aviation agency’s need for roughly 400 ground-based transceivers to support a nationwide ADS-B network. That would be a key milestone in the FAA’s path toward issuing a notice of proposed rule-making outlining the operation and technical requirements — such as onboard avionics — for ADS-B. The agency plans to do that this fiscal year or next.

The FAA has stated it wants ADS-B coverage of the continental United States by 2014. It asked for $80 million in its Fiscal 2007 budget to begin initial ADS-B implementation. Information about the program can be found at

The helicopter community’s break with ADS-B came early in 2006, when the Helicopter Assn. International’s new president, Matt Zuccaro, persuaded FAA Administrator Marion Blakey to sign off on making the Gulf of Mexico the test case for broad implementation of the system in the Lower 48. That deal gave Zuccaro and Gulf operators an ally powerful enough to cut through many of the bureaucratic and political snares that surround (and typically swallow) any air traffic initiative considered unorthodox by the ATC establishment, which often behaves as a sovereign entity.

In return, Blakey got a user community that promised to embrace and advocate the implementation and use of ADS-B and said it was willing to underwrite some of the cost of creating the system.

The link-up of HAI and the Gulf operators with the FAA on ADS-B was a marriage of necessity. Operators and HAI prodded the FAA for years to adopt an inexpensive plan to close the weather and communications services gap over the Gulf of Mexico.

That plan called for the FAA to invest a small amount of money — initially about $12 million — to immediately install weather-reporting and communications gear on platforms in the Gulf. In exchange, platform operators offered the space for the gear and helicopter companies offered transportation for installation and maintenance crews, both free. They couldn’t get the FAA to bite.

The need is critical. As Zuccaro notes, the area in which offshore operators fly, roughly 250X500 mi, has an average of 650 helicopters making 7,500 trips a day to 5,000 facilities. They fly about 38,000 hr and conduct 2.1 million operations a year, carrying 2.6 million passengers, he added, with the majority of that below 5,000 ft.

"They do that without the ability to communicate with ATC, which cannot see them, and without real-time weather," Zuccaro said. "ADS-B is going to dramatically change the way business is done in the Gulf."

Enter ADS-B, which can link offshore helicopters with ATC and with each other and — if the FAA configures the system properly — provide a means of uplinking weather maps, forecast data, urgent notices to airmen, and other data.

Some avionics manufacturers have been acting to address operators’ needs initially. Honeywell and Rockwell Collins, for example, have added ADS-B’s "extended squitters" to their Mode S transponder responses to surveillance radar interrogations. This makes these units so-called 1090ES models, capable of transmitting the aircraft’s position data to air traffic controllers.

Other vendors are working on filling the nascent ADS-B demand.

AcroHeliPro Global Services, for instance, is promoting to operators its experience with ADS-B during the Capstone test of the system in Alaska. The company asserts it is ready to provide the required upgrade services for operators throughout the Gulf region.

"In successfully performing more than 450 ADS-B and glass-cockpit installations" in Alaska, "AcroHeliPro is exceptionally prepared to assist Gulf of Mexico and other operators in making the transition to the newer air traffic management systems," said Elvis Moniz, the company’s director of avionics. He said AcroHeliPro can support ADS-B installations from either of its two main avionics facilities: Andalusia, Ala. and Langley, British Columbia.

In other areas of avionics, operators have a growing interest in glass-cockpit upgrades.

AcroHeliPro, for instance, in November obtained a supplemental type certificate (STC) to install the Rockwell Collins FDS-2000 Cockpit Display System, with flat-panel color displays, and solid-state, dual AHS-3000 Attitude and Heading Reference System (AHARS) as upgrades for the Sikorsky S-61. The installation replaces outdated mechanical horizontal situation indicators (HSIs), attitude direction indicators (ADIs), and mechanical gyros.

The company said it recently delivered its first glass-cockpit upgrade for CSC Autec’s fleet of S-61s. That work included a 9,000-hr inspection, a complete airframe rewiring and re-installation of the popular External Load Emergency release system. In early 2006, AcroHeliPro obtained STCs to perform similar upgrades and rewiring on S-76 series aircraft.

Chelton Flight Systems in November won an FAA STC for installation of its FlightLogic synthetic-vision electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) in the Eurocopter EC120B. The STC was developed in conjunction with Hillsboro Aviation and will be available in a standard, two-screen system, with a primary flight display (PFD) and a multi-function flight display (MFD), and an optional, three-screen system with one PFD and two MFDs.

CMC Electronics at Heli-Expo is showcasing its SureSight M-Series Enhanced Vision System (EVS) sensor, which the company says is ideally suited for helicopters given its light weight and compact size. It also is displaying its PilotView Class 2 Electronic Flight Bag equipped with a high-quality, fully dimmable display with touch-sensitive screen and FMS-style line select keys; its latest generation CMA-9000 Flight and Radio Control Management System for helicopter missions, and its IntegriFlight CMA-5024 high-performance, high-integrity GPS/WAAS/SBAS Landing System Sensor Unit.

On the flight instrumentation front, in January, Era Helicopters selected Sagem Avionics’ Analysis Ground Station in-house software for its flight operations quality assurance program. In partnership with Turbomeca, Sagem’s sister company, the system is designed to detect potential engine problems overlooked by health and usage monitoring systems.

Sandel Avionics is offering its new SN4500 4X4-in electronic HSI for turbine-powered helicopters. It is designed to provide a bright, wide-angle display like those found in the latest generation of aircraft.

Using a high-reliability backlight, the SN4500’s display outperforms cathode-ray tube and LCD screens, according to Jim Guitteau, Sandel’s director of sales. He said the SN4500 uses a new, high-definition light-emitting diode (LED) technology with a mean time between failures of "well over 20,000 hr" and "a very crisp, sharp, picture and excellent viewing angles."

The SN4500 offers a full-color moving map supporting GPS- or FMS-supplied waypoints, heading, bearing pointers for VOR and ADF, DME display, and marker beacons and is upgradable to combine navigation with traffic and datalink weather information.

Sandel said it is approved for use as a primary flight display.

On the communications front, SkyTrac Systems will supply Iridium ISAT-100 terminals for up to 50 helicopters operated by the German air rescue and emergency medical service provider Deutsche Rettungsflugwacht (DRF). DRF plans to use the terminals for air-to-ground voice and data transmission, as well as for flight following. The units will be integrated into the helicopters’ Euronav flight management systems.

Also, Sky Connect has received an order from Era for 75 Tracker systems, with an option for 50 more. Era plans to install the systems, which provide real-time information about air-, land- and ship-based resources, on its fleet of AgustaWestlands, Bells, Eurocopters and Sikorskys.

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