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ADS-B advances, advantages

See, be seen, save money

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the title of Eric Labardini. AOPA regrets the error.
The prospect of a $500 rebate for installing Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) Out equipment is far from the only reason to equip sooner than later. The benefits of this new technology are sometimes overlooked. NextGen newcomers will find the system is already delivering technological tools that enhance safety, take situational awareness to the next level, and, if it comes to it, save critical time that might otherwise be spent locating a stricken aircraft in an emergency.
Satellite-based navigation is becoming the norm. iStock photo.

For many pilots, the ADS-B discussion has long centered on the mandate being another costly requirement, though careful planning (and the $500 rebate announced this month by the FAA) can make the upgrade more affordable. But let’s flip the script on that line of thinking and take a closer look at what general aviation will gain as more aircraft become visible to air traffic control—and each other.

Radar coverage is limited in many places by terrain (particularly in mountain areas), lack of facilities, or both. That means that air traffic controllers are working in the blind to keep aircraft safely separated in many parts of the country, relying on the legacy system of airways and altitude assignments, but not necessarily aware of everything that’s out there. Eric Labardini, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association representative for surveillance and broadcast services, recently noted that Houston Center controllers used to be unable to see any aircraft below 4,000 feet agl over West Texas due to gaps in radar coverage.

“In that same area today, an ADS-B aircraft can be tracked almost to the surface,” Labardini noted. And West Texas is far from the only such example. AOPA and other industry organizations participating in the Equip 2020 group created to solve problems related to the Jan. 1, 2020, ADS-B Out mandate were briefed on June 22 about progress deploying the system. All 24 en route control facilities and all of the large terminal radar control (tracon) facilities are equipped to “see” ADS-B traffic; by 2019, that will increase to 100 percent of the terminal control facilities as well. In addition, the FAA soon will be establishing surface surveillance systems that use ADS-B signals to track ground movements of aircraft and vehicles at nine major airports, enhancing safety by reducing the likelihood of runway incursions, and allowing for more efficient operations.

Labardini also noted that improved ADS-B infrastructure not only serves helicopters flying to and from oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, it also has improved efficiency at Houma-Terrebonne Airport in Houma, Louisiana, where many of those helicopters are based.  

“This has led to a definite improvement in the efficient flow in and out of this airport,” Labardini said. “To get the full benefits that are available today, and save some fuel, equipping with ADS-B is critical from where I sit.”

Another benefit for those who equip could prove a life-saver. Labardini said controllers often lose radar contact with a descending aircraft in an emergency, and ADS-B will allow them to offer vectors and assistance much lower; it also gives rescuers a significant head start on locating a stricken aircraft.

While the routing and traffic flow benefits of ADS-B may be most obvious to pilots flying on instrument flight plans in the form of more direct routing and fewer delays, VFR flights also will see significant improvement in ATC services as well.

“Increasing surveillance is a fundamental improvement for controller efficiency, just like greater ability to communicate,” Labardini said. “It benefits a pilot in many ways to take advantage of ADS-B including better chance for VFR flight following. Pilots can receive flight following at lower altitudes and in more areas than previously available if they are properly equipped.”

Labardini said that so far, only about 15 percent of the aircraft in the system are currently broadcasting high-precision position data via ADS-B Out.

“However, we are seeing hot spots of equipage where the benefits and efficiency are really being seen. We need more aircraft to equip for the percentages to climb and for both pilots and controllers to begin recognizing the benefits,” Labardini said.

AOPA continues to collaborate with the FAA, manufacturers, and other stakeholders to ensure that members get the most benefit possible from the new technology (which also facilitates real-time weather and traffic data display in the cockpit) at the lowest possible cost. The rebates, announced by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, are expected to be available in September, but owners can get started right away charting their course to ADS-B. AOPA offers a collection of information and tools, and detailed the association’s own upgrades in the July issue of AOPA Pilot. AOPA Pilot Technical Editor Mike Collins, who wrote that story, will join Lancaster Avionics manager Todd Adams for a July 13 webinar on the topic.

The FAA also has made tools and information easily available online, including this page, which spells out the rebate process and offers tools to help choose a qualifying system that fits your mission. Visitors to that page also will find answers to frequently asked questions. The rebate program is detailed online, and some manufacturers have begun offering early rebates to owners who want to move forward without waiting for the FAA program to open in September.

Pilots also need to understand the importance of post-installation ADS-B validation.

“It is important operationally for controllers that the equipment be operated per the guidance as otherwise the aircraft may not interact correctly with our automation,” Labardini said. “This can impact the pilot as we may not be able to provide ADS-B services to that aircraft.”

AOPA is collaborating with the FAA on a user guide as part of an Equip 2020 effort to assist pilots after they install ADS-B. The user guide will be available around the same time the rebate website is available in September.

In other news from the recent Equip 2020 meeting, more than 20,000 aircraft are now ADS-B equipped. The FAA also announced plans to make more weather data available to ADS-B users within the next year. The proposed products include lightning strikes, turbulence, current and forecast icing, cloud tops, and one-minute AWOS reports.

Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Editor-Web Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Advocacy, NextGen, Avionics

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