Avionics: No mandate for ADS-B "In"

The business case is weak

January 1, 2012

The FAA’s rules for ADS-B “Out,” the transponder-like signals that identify each aircraft in the satellite-based system, are set in stone.

Avionics manufacturers know the technical specifications they must meet for the new equipment that identifies each aircraft as well as its speed direction, and avionics capability. The rules require the use of the new gear by 2020 in the same U.S. airspace that currently requires a transponder.

“Allowing the GA community to take advantage of the situational awareness benefits of traffic and weather to the cockpit without having to transmit will showcase the significant benefits of ADS-B technology.”

However, FAA standards for ADS-B “In”—those cockpit instruments capable of displaying subscription-free weather and traffic—are still subject to change.

And if the FAA follows the recommendations of an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) formed to study issues surrounding ADS-B In, U.S. aircraft owners won’t be required to buy and install ADS-B In equipment at all. Pilots and aircraft owners will be able to make their own choices about such products based on the kinds of aircraft they fly, the places they go, and the value they see in new equipment.

“Based on currently available cost/benefit information, the ADS-B In ARC concludes there is not a positive business case for air carrier or general aviation operators for ADS-B In implementation in the near- or mid-terms,” the group said in a report released in November. “The ARC does not support an ADS-B In mandate at this time, but supports the voluntary deployment of ADS-B In capabilities in the (national airspace system) as the near-term option.”

The ARC’s recommendations are meant to prevent aircraft owners and pilots from being saddled with costly and burdensome new requirements. The ARC’s recommendations also are meant to preserve competition and innovation in the rapidly evolving avionics arena where many firms, large and small, are developing new products and software capable of showing traffic and weather information on displays ranging from PFDs and MFDs to tablet computers, smart phones, and head-up displays.

This expanding range of products is likely to drive down retail costs and make new situational awareness tools more widely available. The drawback of a system that lacks a single certification standard for ADS-B In, however, is that some of the most futuristic changes in the FAA’s NextGen air traffic system are likely to remain unrealized.

The FAA’s NextGen system, for example, envisions a fundamental shift in the role of air traffic controllers to air traffic managers as greater responsibility for aircraft separation shifts to pilots with sophisticated avionics that allow them to follow other aircraft at fixed intervals. Such a profound change may not be possible when different aircraft have disparate and non-certified avionics equipment and capabilities.

The ARC suggested the FAA keep exploring and testing ADS-B In and “demonstrate to the satisfaction of the user community that equipage benefits are both achievable and operationally implementable in a cost-effective manner.”

Bill Stone, avionics product manager at Garmin International, said many firms are likely producing FAA-certified ADS-B Out products now that the specs have been set.

“The final rule for ADS-B Out invoked fresh standards,” he said. “It generally takes a few years to bring a certified product to market, so these are going to be interesting times.”

The construction of the ADS-B infrastructure that sends weather and traffic information to aircraft capable of receiving it is largely in place and full U.S. coverage is expected in 2013. Currently, the system works well throughout the East, West, and Gulf coasts, but some significant gaps exist in the middle of the country.

The costs of complying with the ADS-B Out requirements and getting the benefits of ADS-B In are still uncertain, but the ARC report estimates aircraft owners would have to pay between $6,000 and $12,000 per airplane for a panel-mounted ADS-B In display (not including ADS-B Out). “The business case would be marginal,” the report said, “because hull values of many existing GA aircraft may not justify the additional investment.”

Additional costs for ADS-B In drop to about $2,000 to $4,000, however, for the 74,000 GA aircraft already equipped with MFDs and noncertified displays, and even less for pilots using tablet computers to show traffic and weather. The ARC also suggests making ADS-B In features such as traffic and weather available to GA pilots immediately—even those who don’t yet transmit ADS-B Out signals.

“Allowing the GA community to take advantage of the situational awareness benefits of traffic and weather to the cockpit without having to transmit will showcase the significant benefits of ADS-B technology,” the report said. “It will also encourage GA operators to make the investment needed to ultimately equip with rule-compliant ADS-B Out displays.”

That recommendation is at odds with the FAA’s current position, which requires that aircraft must be “clients” of the system by transmitting ADS-B Out signals on an approved device before receiving full ADS-B In benefits. Avionics manufacturers
also say they are concerned that allowing aircraft owners to purchase ADS-B In gear without first investing in FAA-certified ADS-B Out signals will make the entire system less reliable and slow sales of ADS-B Out hardware for years.

FreeFlight Systems recently received FAA TSO approval for its ADS-B Out product, which sells for about $4,000. The company is seeking an FAA TSO for its RANGR ADS-B transceiver. FreeFlight says its ADS-B In product will be capable of displaying weather and traffic information on a variety of FAA-certified MFDs—as well as iPads and other tablets.

“It’s going to be a great benefit for everyone when pilots can see each other in real time and avoid bad weather,” said Jessica Power, FreeFlight marketing director. “It’s about increasing safety and awareness for everyone, and doing it in a way that provides the most flexibility in terms of the way pilots choose to display this critical information.”

Email the author at dave.hirschman@aopa.org.

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor , AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.