As the owner of a light aircraft that operates in airspace subject to the coming Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B OUT) mandate, investigating the equipment options available has been an interesting exercise. As many pilots and aircraft operators hoped and expected, innovation in the technology available has continued, resulting in an increased in available options, and to some extent, a decrease in the costs of compliance. This article briefly covers what ADS-B provides, how it has developed over the last decade, and how equipage options have improved over that time.
For those unfamiliar with ADS-B, it is a system that utilizes the precision of Global Positioning System (GPS) data, transmitted to ground recievers, to allow the FAA to safely reduce separation requirements for aircraft in crowded airspace or airspace with minimal radar coverage, such as over the Gulf of Mexico. ADS-B is a key component in the NEXTGEN system. See the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ADS-B website at https://www.faa.gov/nextgen/programs/adsb/ for more.
Mandated in 2010, by late 2014, the FAA had completed most of the deployment of the required ADS-B support infrastructure, and in 2017 the Aireon company began establishing a network of space-based satellites with ADS-B air traffic capabilities in 2017. See https://aireon.com/resources/overview-materials/its-just-ads-b/. As of January, 2018, ADS-B coverage blankets most of the U.S. national airspace, and the FAA provides an interactive coverage map that shows where service is available at various altitudes – see https://www.faa.gov/nextgen/programs/adsb/ICM/.
Early ADS-B equipment options were limited, and expensive. Because a WAAS certified GPS is required, many pilots first needed to install a WAAS GPS in their aircraft before even thinking about ADS-B transponder options. Most ADS-B OUT solutions represent a significant investment for light general aviation aircraft. For those aircraft that already have a suitable WAAS GPS and transponder installed, ADS-B OUT compliance may be as low as about $1,500, achieved by upgrading the electronic components of the existing equipment. But when an aircraft requires upgrades of multiple components, solutions can range upwards of $10,000, $15,000 or more. L-3, Avidyne, Bendix-King, NavWorx, and others offer similar solutions, but a feature of almost all of them is extensive installation requirements.
Why is installation a concern? Simply put – as the pundits have been predicting for the last few years, many (if not most) ADS-B technologies require installation by qualified avionics technicians, and there is significant reason to believe that avionics shops won’t have the capacity to upgrade all aircraft requiring work by the January 2020 deadline. And the cost of installation services can be significant, as older aircraft in need of multiple components may take many hours of labor.
As noted at the beginning of the article, innovations in ADS-B technology has reduced costs, increased options, and lowered installation requirements. Given the potential limitations of avionic shop availability, simplified installation is a major differentiator – one that several ADS-B manufacturers are taking advantage of in their product development decisions. An example is Avidyne’s AXP340, which is advertised as a “slide-in” replacement for the Bendix-King KT76A and KT78A transponders that dominated aircraft produced in the 80s and 90s. Although advertised as an easy ADS-B solution, the system requires the aircraft to have an existing WAAS capable GPS, and still requires an avionics technician perhaps a full day’s work to make the required connections and swap out antennas.
uAvionix is a manufacturer that seems to have found an even easier path to ADS-B equipage, offering two products of interest – the SkyBeacon and TailBeacon. SkyBeacon is designed to replace the left-side navigation light found on many light aircraft, while TailBeacon replaces the white position light found on the rear of many aircraft. Both are about $2,000 multi-function devices, featuring a built-in WAAS GPS, an altitude encoder and a 978 MHz ADS-B OUT transmitter. SkyBeacon also incorporate a red LED navigation light and an LED strobe light, while TailBeacon includes a white navigation LED light, and installation of both is should require just a few hours. For SkyBeacon, my aircraft requires a wingtip fairing, which is raw plastic and would be painted to match the aircraft - which adds time and expense. Installation of TailBeacon, however, uses two screws and two wires already present to power the old navigation light, and should be simple. The hitch, for now, is that TailBeacon is awaiting FAA approval, but now that the shutdown has ended, uAvionix expects that approval by March, 2019. See more information from uAvionix at https://uavionix.com/product/tailbeacon-tso/
Given installation times under an hour in some cases, finding a certified avionics technician that can install one of the uAvionix units should be a lot easier and require less aircraft downtime than a more invasive ADS-B OUT installation. After considering all of the options and the coming deadline, I placed a pre-order for a TailBeacon last week. With the FAA’s current ADS-B OUT rebate program reimbursing $500, the TailBeacon seems like the simplest and least expensive ADS-B OUT solution that is likely to be available before the deadline is here.