EC takes off elsewhere (but flies beneath our CAA’s crumbling radar)

13 October 2020 / by the GAA team / Consultation, Costs, GA in general, Governance, Medical, News, Opinion, Safety

This SkyEcho device costs a fraction of standard ADS-B, but does the job in Class G airspace. Picture by uAvionics Corp

For GA operators flying in uncontrolled airspace, there’s obviously no safety benefit from ADS-B unless your most immediate (and invisible) neighbour also has it installed and running. It’s an open secret that ADS-B was mandated largely for the good of Airways and the airlines (what’s left of them).

So it’s hardly surprising to learn that our powers-that-be are doing little, if anything, about a cost-effective solution to this important GA safety issue, even though it’s already been adopted in the UK and Australia.

We’re talking about Electronic Conspicuity, EC for short, and here’s why it’s so important for much of our GA fleet.

For older and/or lower-value aircraft, the cost of a certified ADS-B installation will not match the benefits relative to the value of the aircraft if they are not covered by acceptable technical data – for example, a supplemental type certificate (STC).  If these aircraft fly in controlled airspace relatively infrequently, the investment in ADS-B equipment is not matched by the benefit of access to controlled airspace.

So, for low-volume home-builts and low-cost microlights operating exclusively in Class G airspace, the cost becomes prohibitive.  August saw the total number of our aircraft equipped with ADS-B surpass the 1000 mark (1018); nevertheless, after 31 December 2021, most aircraft flying in Class G are unlikely to be ADS-B-equipped.

Civil Aviation Rules currently require that aircraft operating within controlled airspace be fitted with equipment compatible with the secondary surveillance radar (SSR) used by Air Traffic Control. SSR determines the location of aircraft, and can obtain further identifying information from aircraft that are equipped with the required transponders. New Zealand’s SSR infrastructure will reach the end of its service life in 2021. Airways, which owns and operates the equipment, is replacing it with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) ground stations.

Right now, many GA aircraft have serviceable, compliant, Mode A & C transponders but comments from some owners indicate that after 31 December 2021, they will neither use nor recertify their redundant technology.

But new technology provides the solution.

For a cost similar to that of an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy phone, pilots operating lightweight, home-built aircraft, gyrocopters, microlight aircraft, gliders, balloons, hang gliders or powered parachutes could be persuaded to invest in a portable device, if approved by the CAA under similar conditions to those in the UK and Australia.

The UK CAA and Australia’s CASA developed a minimum technical specification for low-power, lightweight, portable EC devices that use ADS-B IN/OUT.  They enable you to see and be seen, by transmitting your aircraft position, altitude, course and speed to surrounding aircraft. The information can be seen on a tablet with OzRunways or AvPlan.

Such EC devices are already on the market. They cost as little as £400 in the UK.

The aim is to encourage voluntary uptake in the GA community. A significant uptake could reduce the risk of mid-air collision in Class G airspace by improving situational awareness. The recent tragic accident at Masterton, involving a skydiving aircraft and another light aeroplane, is one example where EC could have turned the traditional ‘see and avoid’ concept into ‘see, be seen, and avoid’. A similar fatal mid-air collision occurred at Kapiti Coast aerodrome some years ago.

‘See and avoid’ is more robust when additional cues are available, such as those provided via an Air Traffic Service, radio, ADS-B or EC. An Australian Transport Safety Bureau report found that pilots are significantly more effective at seeing and avoiding other aircraft when they receive an additional cue – known as ‘alerted search’.

In 2016, the UK CAA produced CAP 1391, and amended it in 2018. The report sets out key results of the CAA-led project to develop an industry standard for a low-cost electronic conspicuity device for use in light aircraft. It explains why such a standard is necessary and what is needed to encourage more aircraft operators and owners to use EC devices. It sets out a full technical specification and acceptable means of compliance.

Under the Australian Government’s Civil Aviation Order 20.18 Amendment, standards have been published to encourage voluntary use of ADS-B OUT systems on Visual Flight Rules aircraft. The aim is to reduce the costs of installing air-to-air surveillance technology in VFR aircraft, with a view to enhancing the basic VFR safety principle of ‘see and avoid.’

Conditions of use specified by CASA are:

  • Voluntary use in aircraft operated to the Visual Flight Rules (VFR) below F290.
  • An EC device cannot be used instead of a transponder for operations in Class A, C, or E airspace or above 10,000ft AMSL in Class G airspace.
  • It is acceptable to simultaneously operate a transponder and an EC device, but only if the transponder is not outputting ADS-B position information.

A typical commercially available portable ADS-B IN and OUT system has an integrated TSO-certified SBAS GPS and barometric altimeter, transmits the aircraft location, altitude, and identification via 1090MHz ADS-B, enabling the aircraft to be seen by nearby aircraft and Air Traffic Control. In Australia and New Zealand, the integrated ADS-B IN receiver connects wirelessly to Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) applications adhering to an industry-standard protocol for ADS-B traffic – including OzRunways and AvPlan EFB.

Drone operators are adopting EC

UAV operators are increasingly equipping with ADS-B receivers as a Detect and Avoid solution – broadcasting a UAV’s location via ADS-B helps aircraft and drone to remain clear of each other. The increasing use of UAVs in rural Class G airspace is an unacceptable hazard if avoidance continues to be based on a pilot visually locating a drone (which, in most cases, is virtually impossible).

In our 2018 CAA Client Satisfaction Survey, we asked: ‘Is the CAA innovative and open to new ideas?’ The survey result returned a score of just 2 out of 10, which strongly suggested that participants considered the CAA was not.

Since the EC option was raised in 2016, the New Zealand CAA has said absolutely nothing about it.

So in August, the GAA wrote to Dean Winter, Acting Deputy Chief Executive, Aviation Safety. We requested that, in the interests of safety and the prevention of mid-air collisions such as the Masterton accident, EC technology be approved as soon as possible, but at the very latest by 31 December 2021.

In a lack-lustre reply, Mr Winter said:

“This matter is already under review by the relevant CAA units and Airways, and your points are being taken into consideration. However as this is a significant issue that requires some careful consideration and collaboration between CAA and Airways, there will be a delay before we are able to fully respond to your letter.  We will however endeavour to get back to you as soon as we are able.”

October came and nothing had been heard from Mr Winter. While we pondered why flight in uncontrolled airspace was Airways’ business, we received a message from a GA supporter who’d heard about the UK CAA’s grant scheme for EC installation. He qualified for a 50% rebate of up to £250, because he had a lifetime UK NPPL microlight certificate. Hence his question:

Will New Zealand CAA’s ADS-B rebate cover EC installations, as the UK has done?

Well, of course it won’t – because the NZ CAA has hardly begun to think about the implementation of EC, let alone subsidise it.

So why, yet again, are we waiting? You all know the answer to that one…

PPL medical reform is on an unknown waiting list

Which leads us neatly on to the reform of PPL medical certification.

Despite two GAA requests to Acting Director Shelley Turner for an update on progress, the CAA has not provided one.

Public consultation began three years ago in 2017 and closed on 3 February 2020. Now, about eight months later, it would seem that the final rule package is still to be agreed with the Ministry of Transport.

Is it any wonder that recreational pilots hold the CAA in such contempt, when they are consistently kept in the dark on matters of such important personal interest?  Is it too much to ask for regular monthly CAA briefings from the CEO?

The answers are NO and YES.

As usual, this has everything to do with lead-footed Kiwi bureaucracy and the traditional, appalling inertia that is a hallmark of the CAA. It has nothing to do with the Authority’s oft-vaunted, widely mocked and unproven aspiration to improve aviation safety.

So, sorry, folks. There is still no sign of those new brooms and their clean sweep. If inaction persists, the GAA will be powering up the pressure washer.