The FAA has mandated that by 2020 all aircraft flying in controlled airspace in the United States must be equipped with ADS-B or Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast equipment. ADS-B is a key part of the much anticipated NextGen Air Traffic System, which will rely on 21st century satellite tracking rather than 20th century radar. The ruling basically states that if you’re currently flying in airspace that requires a Mode C transponder, your aircraft must become ADS-B equipped by January 1, 2020.
Modernization of the air traffic system is crucial in a world in which more and more people worldwide depend on aircraft for business and personal travel. ADS-B is just one link in the NextGen chain, but it is a vital one because it brings the technology right into the cockpit, enhancing not just air traffic control, but the situation awareness of every pilot in the air.
Additionally, with the increased use of unmanned aircraft in the skies, ADS-B may become more and more of a necessity to maintain safe separation between aircraft and drones.
What is ADS-B and What Does It Do?
The FAA requirement is just for ADS-B Out and not ADS-B In. ADS-B Out transmits your aircraft’s altitude, airspeed and location via GPS satellite to ground stations and to other ADS-B equipped aircraft in your immediate area. This information is displayed to air traffic control about once a second; virtually in real time instead of up to 12 seconds it takes radar to complete a full sweep of its quadrants.
ADS-B In provides pilots with more benefits and features. It allows cockpit crews to receive traffic and weather information from ADS-B ground stations and from nearby aircraft broadcasting their positions through ADS-B Out. This greatly enhances situational awareness for pilots in ADS-B In equipped aircraft.
You could argue that many current hand-held devices now provide weather just as easily, but with ADS-B Out you do not pay for the weather service annually; it is built into the system and transmitted freely.
An ADS-B installation requires two items: 1) a certified, rule compliant WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) GPS high-integrity position source (please note that this must be an IFR certified GPS, so some who have older GPSs may have to upgrade) and 2) a data-link radio of which there are two types: 1090 MHz and 978 MHz. Here’s why there are two different frequencies:
- All Aircraft operating at or above 18,000 ft. MSL must have 1090ES (Extended Squitter); all aircraft below 18,000 ft. can use 978 UAT (Universal Access Transmitter)
- The 1090ES ADS-B requires transponder replacement or modification. The 978 UAT will work with existing MODE A, C or S transponders, which aircraft flying in controlled airspace must currently have by regulation.
What are the Benefits to Air Travel?
Safety: Information is coming into the cockpit at the speed of light, not the speed of radar. This in turn will allow for closer separation of aircraft and more direct routing of all aircraft through controlled airspace, which includes Class A, B, C and everything above 10,000 MSL.
Reduced System Costs: Compared to radar ground stations, ADS-B ground stations are relatively low-cost and will require only 650 ground centers to cover the entire United States. According to Aviation Week’s Business & Commercial Aviation, the U.S. national airspace now has the required ground installations in place, as well as coverage in the Gulf of Mexico (with installations on 13 operating oil rigs) and Alaska.
Who’s Using ADS-B Right Now?
Five years out from mandatory compliance, the aviation community in the U.S. has hardly rushed out and installed ADS-B in their aircraft. The FAA estimates that 13,000 aircraft are currently equipped – that is only about 8 to 13% of the U.S. aircraft. Remarkably, airlines have been even slower to embrace this technology, which was created with them in mind. As of September 2015, only 5 to 7% of the U.S. commercial air fleet has installed ADS-B.
Beating the Mad Rush
What aircraft owners need to understand is that if they continue to delay compliance, they will be caught in the last-minute rush as the deadline date looms. With the current labor force in place, there is no way avionics shops are going to get all these aircraft upgrades done before the deadline. So the best advice is to get your upgrade done now if possible, or you may be looking at a long period of not being able to fly your aircraft once the deadline does pass.
Breaking down Barriers
The main stumbling block for General Aviation has been money. The AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) has repeatedly pointed out that the average GA pilot flies a legacy aircraft worth $40,000 or less. With ADS-B installation and hardware costing as much as $5,000 to $6,000, that becomes a sizable investment when compared to the net value of the aircraft. AOPA has also argued for less expensive solutions, such as hand-held version, which would not require costly panel re-configurations. Lastly, the advent of tablets with aviation apps has brought many ADS-B features into the cockpit for a fraction of the cost.
Some Good News
While there has been much controversy over the cost of ADS-B and even some who question the add-value of it in light of today’s portable devices and app, there have been some encouraging developments in recent months. New, less expensive solutions are beginning to emerge, some of which bring some ADS-B units down to the $3,000 range.
In a survey of over 8,000 GA aircraft owners conducted by Emery Riddle Aeronautical University, some said they could afford an ADS-B Out system in the $1,000 to $2,000 range, but a majority, 61% said they could afford a system between $2,000 and $3,000 – and 80% favored a government tax break for owners who installed. This, plus some robust discount plans, is now helping GA pilots to consider installing earlier, than waiting until the last possible moment.
From a worldwide perspective, many countries around the world are putting the ADS-B ground architecture in place. This is particularly true in third world countries, which could not afford expensive radar coverage, but can afford the less expensive ADS-B ground network.
More good news is also on the way in the form of a second-generation Iridium telecommunications satellite network, which will put 66 “eyes-in-the-sky,” bringing complete coverage around the globe – including full coverage across oceans and seas.
The Bottom Line
ADS-B manufacturers argue that the additional situation awareness ADS-B provides will help promote GA rather than shrink it and that flight schools in particular will appreciate the added advantages of being able to track their students’ whereabouts, as well as give them an added margin of safety. The manufacturers believe the system will work well when fully implemented and improve with time.
The reality is that you will have to add ADS-B to your airplane if you wish to continue flying in controlled airspace. That goes for owners of thirty-five year old piston-driven Cessnas, Pipers and Beechcrafts as well as owners of state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar Gulfstream jets. In either case, it may be more sensible to do it sooner than later because the FAA is standing firm on its January 1, 2020 compliance deadline. And, by the way, that’s already 20 years into the 21st century.