ADS-B is a bit like a vaccine: Everyone needs to have it to achieve the maximum possible benefit. As drones continue to increase in number, AOPA noted that aircraft owners who may not need access to certain airspace once ADS-B becomes mandatory in that airspace in 2020 still stand to gain significant safety and situational awareness by equipping.
In medicine, the term “herd immunity” refers to disease prevention through mass vaccination. It is achieved when a significant portion of any given population is immune to a given disease. Once the population exposed to the risk achieves this benchmark, the protection of vaccination extends beyond the vaccinated individuals to include everyone.
AOPA Senior Director of Airspace, Air Traffic, and Aviation Security Rune Duke noted the association’s concern that many general aviation owners remain unprepared for the ADS-B mandate that will apply to so-called “rule airspace” starting in January (generally speaking, airspace where Mode C has been required for many years).
“We are projecting just 60 percent of the 143,000 general aviation aircraft that frequent rule airspace will have ADS-B by 2020. With nearly 212,000 aircraft in the active general aviation fleet, there is still a way to go,” Duke said. “It is important pilots understand the wide-ranging safety and efficiency benefits of equipping with ADS-B Out. We regularly hear stories from pilots of how ADS-B Out helped avoid a traffic conflict, or worse."
Duke noted that many hands and minds are working together to achieve wider implementation of ADS-B. AOPA has enjoyed the support of many collaborators from industry, including firms that were created to support the unmanned aircraft segment of GA. To name one example, DJI announced in May that it will equip every DJI drone weighing 250 grams or more with ADS-B In. That AirSense feature will help remote pilots avoid conflict between their drones and manned aircraft, displaying on the remote pilot’s screen traffic alerts for any nearby aircraft that are broadcasting ADS-B Out.
“As we studied the past few years of drone incidents, we learned that nearly all reported drone sightings and even collisions are not credible, but also found a pattern of verified low-altitude conflicts with helicopters. We used this data to inform our next step in leading the industry in drone safety: ADS-B,” said DJI Vice President of Policy and Legal Affairs Brendan Schulman, in an email. “Our voluntary commitment to ADS-B will help the vast majority of drone pilots be better aware of nearby traffic and take steps to avoid conflicts and collisions. As the FAA’s 2020 ADS-B mandate comes into force, our voluntary commitment to equipping the world’s most popular drones provides one of the best additional reasons for airplane and helicopter owners to equip their fleets.”
Equipping business jets is a relatively easy sell, but the value proposition for older piston aircraft has long been a challenge. Owners of vintage airplanes that often lack basic electrical systems have good reason to want to avoid investing many thousands of dollars equipping with ADS-B Out systems that might cost more than their Piper Cub or Luscombe is worth. This is exactly the inexorable force that has limited ADS-B fleet penetration (and that “herd immunity” we’re all aiming for), and that pulled uAvionix (a Montana company launched in 2015 to serve the drone industry) into GA in a big way.
uAvionix announced a discount on select products for AOPA members in October, part of an ongoing effort to reduce the cost of equipage and maximize the safety benefits for all. The tailBeacon and skyBeacon products have been approved as ADS-B Out solutions for helicopters and fixed-wing GA aircraft, and can be purchased and installed for around $2,000, requiring just an hour of shop time in many cases.
“We firmly believe (ADS-B is) the best detect-and-avoid solution in terms of any single technology,” said Christian Ramsey, president of uAvionix, in a phone interview. Ramsey said the company’s strategy has evolved, particularly during 2019, to focus much more attention on creating solutions for manned aircraft. That is in no small part to help facilitate advanced drone operations to come, such as package delivery, infrastructure inspection, and other beyond-line-of-sight operations that are key to realizing the potential benefits of unmanned aircraft.
One key hurdle remains, Ramsey said: “How do we get everyone in the manned world to equip so that we can enable the unmanned operations?”
It’s all about costs and incentives, and Ramsey said his firm has made safety central to its marketing effort, addressing the National Agricultural Aviation Association’s convention this year with a presentation on its low-cost ADS-B Out solutions pitched as technology that can keep drones well clear, because the remote pilots will “see” the inbound crop duster that is broadcasting its position, and maneuver to avoid it long before the remote pilot could hope to hear or see the low-flying aircraft: “If you put ADS-B Out on your crop duster … (drone pilots) are going to see you,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey said there is reason to hope that regulators may soon enable an even less expensive ADS-B Out solution for manned aircraft in the interest of safety: The FAA has been reluctant to approve any portable ADS-B Out transmitters for use inside or outside of rule airspace. Ramsey said the firm has detected a shift in recent months toward openness to considering that, even if not for mandate compliance in rule airspace.
The benefit of going portable? “Call it 500 bucks and you’ve got a protection mechanism,” Ramsey said.
There is widespread consensus that enabling advanced drone operations like package delivery will require layers of technology beyond ADS-B. AOPA, the FAA, and industry all recognize the imperative to account for some number of aircraft flying without broadcasting their presence via ADS-B Out, or any other means, though the goal is to encourage as much adoption as possible. Safety should be a priority shared by all airspace users.
The long-term plan is to safely accommodate and account for so-called “non-cooperative” aircraft (in the parlance of the drone industry) with a layered approach that includes drone-mounted detect-and-avoid technology.
Iris Automation of San Francisco is among the leaders in developing successful, compact, active detect-and-avoid solutions for drones. Casia, the firm’s flagship solution, is a system composed of cameras integrated with a powerful computer programmed to recognize and automatically maneuver the drone to avoid any nearby flying objects. Casia has performed well in tests conducted under the federal unmanned aircraft Integration Pilot Program.
"Our system is designed to detect-and-avoid both cooperative and non-cooperative aircraft. In order to maximize situational awareness, Casia also incorporates ADS-B allowing it to be aware of and actively avoid aircraft broadcasting these signals," said Alexander Harmsen, CEO of Iris Automation, in an email.
Camera-based systems like Casia as well as drone-mounted radar being developed by Echodyne and others will be critical to enabling advanced drone operations at scale without sacrificing safety or segregating airspace, two compromises that nobody wants to make. One or both of these technologies, perhaps further augmented by other detection methods yet to prove their capability, will close much of the situational awareness gap.
“AOPA is very optimistic and supportive of these innovative companies in their development and improvement of technology to detect and avoid manned aircraft,” said AOPA Director of Regulatory Affairs Chris Cooper. “With the increasing equipage of ADS-B for manned aircraft and the continued adoption of detect-and-avoid technology for unmanned aircraft, the industry is taking significant steps toward safely integrating UAS into the National Airspace System.”
Ramsey noted that the FAA has made it pretty clear that with the vast majority of small drones expected to remain below 400 feet, ADS-B Out is not a viable solution for this segment of the aircraft population, at least not at scale. Another technology will be required for remote identification and tracking of drones.
Equipping miniature aircraft to detect ADS-B Out broadcast from as many manned aircraft as possible will reduce the probability of conflict and collision to acceptable levels. “Inoculating” as much of the GA fleet as possible with ADS-B Out will be one of the keys to airspace safety in years to come.