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Safety-Enhancing Avionics Upgrades for 2014  

By By Dale Smith | March 1, 2014
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Honeywell SVS alerting system. Photo courtesy of Honeywell

From any helicopter pilot or owner’s perspective, these are some amazing times. Especially when you look at all the capabilities that are available today. From synthetic vision, to terrain and obstacle awareness, to infrared-based enhanced vision systems (EVS); to GPS navigation, traffic, weather and just about anything else you want, the functionality you can put in a panel today would even astound a futurist like Mr. Clarke.

While the availability of affordable technology has certainly been an enabler behind many of these products, the real driving motivation for every manufacturer is the continual effort to improve helicopter safety.


Unfortunately, the rotorcraft industry’s safety record is none too good. In fact, for the first time ever the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has put helicopter operations on its “Most Wanted” list. According the NTSB report, between January 2003 and May 2013 there were 1,470 helicopter accidents resulting in 274 serious injuries and 477 fatalities.

While there are a lot of reasons behind every incident, it’s a safe bet that safety-enhancing avionics could have been instrumental in turning many accidents into non-events.

“One of the main things we want to avoid as pilots is inadvertent flight into IFR weather in a VFR helicopter,” stated Steve Wysong, president of Wysong Enterprises. “Knowing where the weather is, is critical. With ADS-B [automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast] and XM weather in the panel, today’s pilots can easily avoid those problems.”

But Wysong added that weather avoidance is just the beginning, pointing to traffic systems such as helicopter terrain awareness and warning systems (HTAWS). “That technology has come on strong. New databases can even show the location of power lines. That’s big. High-tension power lines and low flying helicopters don’t mix.”

Helijet Bell 407 interior. Photo courtesy of Wysong Enterprises

While he said that all these technologies are seeing increased implementation by a variety of operators, one upgrade in particular is quickly gaining in popularity – and it may surprise you.

“One thing we are seeing is operators putting autopilots in mid-size and light helicopters. These new digital systems have come a long way in recent years,” Wysong said. “It is a big safety benefit. If the pilot gets into marginal weather or gets distracted – especially in single-pilot operations – it can take a lot of the workload off so he can reorient what he’s doing. It’s a much safer situation.”


Limited Panel Space

While there is a growing list of safety enhancing avionics upgrades to choose from, Wysong said one problem his shop continually deals with is trying to put it all in a helicopter’s very limited panel space.

“A big part of our time is spent trying to put all these items in the panel in a way that works for the customer and the FAA,” he said. “The FAA wants to see everything right in front of the pilot. But, there just isn’t that much space available. Between trying to meet what the customer and FAA want and what we can actually do, it’s becoming quite a balancing act.”

Wysong said that one type of upgrade that can help pilots do more without taking attention away from flying is to install more remote operations capabilities. “Pilots want more controls mounted on the cyclic and collective now. We can do a lot more now with these remote functions than we could in the past,” he said. “It’s a great capability, but it does make the installation more challenging.”

He said it’s not uncommon to finish even a relatively basic installation and need another two-days to do all the system programming and configuring of not only how the boxes work together, but how exactly the pilot wants things controlled and displayed.


Safer Through Technology

Lets take a closer look at some of the more popular avionics upgrade options

(Editor’s Note: Because of space restrictions, he following list is just representative of the array of manufacturers offering products in all of these areas.)


Glass Panel Upgrades

While it wasn’t long ago that glass upgrades were only available to the larger airframes, that’s no longer the case. Today, owner/operators have an expanding array of glass options from Aspen Avionics compact H-Series PFDs and MFDs (primary flight displays/multifunction displays), to the large-format displays from Cobham, Garmin, Universal Avionics, and others.

And while glass displays for airplanes and helicopters may basically look the same, Garmin’s Military and Government business development manager, Brett Harlow, stressed that at least in Garmin’s case, they’re not.

“Our helicopter synthetic vision display is quite a bit different from our fixed-wing version. For example we’ve taken the same five-color scheme you see on hour HTAWS and used it on the G500H and G1000H synthetic vision displays,” he said. “We’ve also added 3D obstacles and 3D traffic capabilities. All the colors mean the same no matte what you are seeing. The traffic system uses the same color representations as any traffic system. It’s all very intuitive for the pilot.”



Whether you call it an enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS) or helicopter terrain awareness and warning system (HTAWS), the systems pretty much do the same thing – provide an active way of knowing when terrain or known obstacles will become a hazard.

“It takes the ‘own-ship’ position and compares it to the onboard terrain and obstacle database,” explained Larry Surace, director of advanced safety systems for Honeywell Aerospace. “It then issues aural and visual alerts based on the helicopter’s proximity to those known obstacles.”

Surace said that because helicopters are often forced to fly very low to avoid weather, tools like EGPWS are gaining in popularity with all operators. And because of that Honeywell has worked hard to optimize the system’s performance. “This is not a fixed-wing brush-off solution that’s just fit into helicopters,” he said. “It features a very specific set of algorithms designed by helicopter pilots to meet specific needs.”

Speaking of using technology to meet specific mission needs, Honeywell staff scientist, Yasuo Ishihara, added that one of the goals of the next-generation of EGPWS systems is to be customizable to meet specific types of operations.

“The continuation of higher integration with new technologies is a goal,” he said. “Customization to meet specific needs – aero medical, search and rescue, law enforcement, offshore, VIP transportation – while they all may use the same type of helicopter, their operations and requirements are vastly different. In the future we are hoping to narrow the focus of EGPWS capabilities to fit specific needs.”

Before and After: Panel in a Wysong-completed Bell 407 prior to the upgrade (at left) and post-upgrade (below). Photos courtesy of Wysong Enterprises


Traffic Advisory Systems

As helicopter operations in more congested environments increases, so does their need for active traffic avoidance capabilities. Because of their low cost and compact size, new-generation TAS systems are gaining popularity.

For example, Avidyne’s TAS600 series systems provide real-time traffic monitoring and advisories of up to 50 transponder-equipped aircraft in it coverage area and can display up to nine of the nearest targets at any time.

One of the system’s key features is its Heads-Up Audible Position Alerting, which uses the same aural alert terminology as ATC to provide aural indications of a conflicting aircraft’s bearing, range and relative altitude, enabling the helicopter pilot to quickly acquire the threat.


Digital Autopilots

As Steve Wysong noted, with their ability to help stabilize helicopters in a variety of situations, today’s lightweight digital autopilots are really gaining traction in the EMS, law enforcement, electronic news gathering (ENG) and corporate areas.

“I think you’ll see autopilots in every EMS helicopter in the future,” Wysong said. “At the very least an SAS [stability augmentation system] that can level the aircraft.”

And one of the most popular systems, at least at his shop, is the new Cobham/S-TEC HeliSAS system. “Having an autopilot is a huge benefit. If a pilot does get into marginal weather or is somehow distracted, the system can help keep the helicopter stable,” he said.

Another capability of particular importance to single-pilot operations is the HeliSAS’ stability augmentation system. SAS provides precise control during all modes of flight regardless of wind conditions or the aircraft’s center of gravity. In effect, it an automatically return the aircraft to near level flight with the touch of a button.


Enhanced Vision Systems

Avidyne ATD150 digital display, courtesy of Avidyne.

While synthetic vision is a great safety enhancing capability, it’s restricted in the sense that it can only show “known” obstacles and terrain. If it’s not known, it can’t be shown. That’s why an active enhanced vision system like the Max-Viz 1500 is such a great addition to any cockpit with or without synthetic vision.

GTN stack

courtesy of Garmin

“By using long-wave infrared sensors, the system can virtually turn night into day and greatly improve visibility when the pilot’s vision is obscured by smoke, haze, smog, light fog and mist,” explained Dale Farr, rotary wing sales manager for Astronics Corporation. “Working with a synthetic vision system or as a stand alone display, the Max-Viz EVS gives pilots a view of what’s in front of their helicopters. The result is greater spatial orientation and situational awareness in any reduced visibility situation.”

Garmin GTN750

courtesy of Garmin

And to save valuable panel space, the Max-Viz EVS images can be viewed on any unit that accepts an RS170 video input such as the Garmin and Universal displays. If the helicopter is not equipped with compatible glass, the operator can install a small, dedicated EVS display.

“I think that all helicopter operators need to know that in 2009, the FAA identified ‘look-ahead’ systems like EVS as the most effective safety tool available for mitigating CFIT an IIMC related accidents,” Farr said.




The Panel of Tomorrow

While we’ve just touched on a few of the upgrades available today, there are plenty more to consider – one of the biggest being ADS-B capabilities. Although the current mandate for ADS-B installation doesn’t go into effect until 2020, Wysong cautions operators not to wait until 2019.

“Everyone is aware that the deadline is coming, but we just haven’t seen much movement in the helicopter market up until now,” Wysong said. “If they wait too long, there just won’t be enough shops to get all the work done by the deadline.”

ADS-B isn’t the only upgrade Wysong sees coming on the horizon. “I think voice activated systems are going to become popular with helicopter pilots once the technology is more mature. They will be able to control systems without taking their hands off of the controls,” he said. “It will be like having Siri in your cockpit.”

Another emerging technology is health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS). “Several manufacturers are beginning to offer systems that monitor the various systems and look for problems,” he said. “I think we’ll see a lot more of that in the future. It can be a great safety enhancing capability for all kinds of operators.”

Whether it’s SVS, EGPWS, HUMS, EVS or any of the growing list of available avionics upgrades, if it enhances safety, it should be on everyone’s Most Wanted list today.


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