2016 Support Scholarship Contest: First Place Essay

2016 Support Scholarship Contest: First Place Essay

By Marietta E. Geist, 2016 NAAA Support Scholarship Contest winner

When I was presented with the opportunity to apply for the NAAA Support Scholarship I had little knowledge about what ADS-B was, even though I have been surrounded by agricultural aviation and general aviation my entire life. I grew up knowing the basics of general aviation such as GPS navigation and the difference between VFR and IFR. I can identify the difference between an agricultural airplane and a general aviation airplane. My family has spent many hours flying together in a Beechcraft Bonanza to visit family and take vacations. I have been in and out of many general aviation airports across the country. ADS-B wasn’t something that my dad and I had ever discussed. After researching the topic and talking with my father I have a better understanding of what ADS-B is and a better understanding of its significance.

In my essay I will briefly define ADS-B, discuss the pros (benefits) and cons (negatives) of ADS-B, and relate how the pros and cons of ADS-B affect my family as owners of general aviation aircraft.

The acronym ADS-B stands for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast. ADS-B is part of the United States and Europe’s effort to transform air traffic management. In the United States this initiative is known as Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 contains provisions to accelerate the efforts of NextGen. A key component of the NextGen plan is to move from ground-based surveillance and navigation to an advanced surveillance technology which uses Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation. NextGen and its initiatives will create fundamental transformations in aviation through the use of advanced technologies. These technologies and changes, in a broad view, are expected to benefit aircraft operators, passengers and society by reducing airspace congestion, aircraft noise, exhaust gas emissions and provide greater efficiency and safety.

ADS-B was selected by the FAA as a cornerstone technology. ADS-B will move from radar technologies to precise tracking using surveillance technology from satellite signals. The United States will require most aircraft operating within its airspace to be equipped with ADS-B Out avionics by Jan. 1, 2020. This would include airspace A, B, C and E (above 10,000 feet MSL [mean sea level] but not below 2,500 AGL [above ground level]). Under this mandate, aircraft not complying with the requirements may be denied access to this airspace.

One of the benefits of the ADS-B Out system will be its ability to transmit properly formatted ADS-B messages from the aircraft to ground stations and to aircraft equipped with ADS-B In systems. This would create a “Hockey Puck” or “The Cylinder of Surveillance” providing for safer navigation since the pilot will have an enhanced awareness of what is around him or her. The ADS-B Out equipment will create a “Ping” identifying who you are, while where you are will be determined by the WAAS GPS sending your position data to the ADS-B ground station. The ground station, knowing where you are at and what is around you, will transmit a cylinder of surveillance to your ADS-B In equipment placing you in the center of the cylinder or “Hockey Puck” creating a three-dimensional halo around you. There will be a reduction in positional uncertainty. This enhanced awareness for the pilot and ground is becoming increasingly more important as aviation congestion increases with the growth of air traffic.     

The United States, under NextGen, is replacing radar with GPS technologies for surveillance purposes. This will provide improved safety in congested airspace, as described in the previous paragraph, but replacing radar with GPS technologies will provide other benefits as well. UPS has been generally in favor of the mandated change because it views the change as a way to improve its fleet operations by knowing exactly where planes are and being able to manage flights using real time. This has been supported by FedEx as well for the same reasons. The use of ADS-B will be helpful in locating commercial passenger flights that have gone down. The benefit of locating a crashed plane extends to general aviation as well. The cost in dollars and human terms of search and rescue efforts will decrease with the use of a more accurate technology system utilizing enhanced GPS technologies. Satellite signals provide improved accuracy and reliability over radar, therefore allowing for increased capacity in air traffic along with increased safety. ADS-B ground stations are also easier to place than radar ground stations, therefore providing a greater coverage area, especially in more remote areas. ADS-B will also reduce the problem that radar has in discriminating aircraft from “clutter” such as rain or migratory birds. ADS-B ground stations are smaller, therefore taking up less space than radar structures, which are also more expensive to maintain. ADS-B provides the same services as radar in a digital package of technology that does not degrade with distance, and according to a John-Hopkins study, ADS-B is almost 200 times more accurate at a 40-mile range than radar.

Reducing aviation fuel consumption and emissions is another benefit promoted by NextGen and the move toward ADS-B compliance. GPS satellite signals maintain uniform precision between distances. This means that aircraft can fly more directly from one point to another. These increased precisions in flight will save time and money by reducing the fuel burned and therefore creating less fuel emissions. UPS equipped some of its aircraft with ADS-B, knowing that this investment would save time and money due to improved flight precision.

Another benefit of ADS-B is the improved pilot cockpit services of Flight Information Service-Broadcast (FIS-B) and Traffic Information Service-Broadcast (TIS-B). FIS-B provides both textual and graphical weather information. FIS-B weather is a bonus to both IFR and VFR pilots, and TIS-B traffic enhances the pilot’s awareness of what is around him or her. Not only is the wealth of information a benefit, but the traffic, weather and aeronautical information is available free to those equipped with ADS-B.

Clearly there are many rational benefits to the ADS-B mandate: economics, safety, improved information benefits. The transition to ADS-B as a common standard and creating a working system may not be a simple matter to accomplish. There may be some unforeseen hurdles to cross as the Jan. 1, 2020, deadline approaches. The cons or negatives of the ADS-B may lie within the unanswered questions associated with the transition.

One of the biggest obstacles may actually be how general aviation owners get from the present, without the ADS-B mandate, to the future—when full compliance is necessary. Aviation has a diverse set of users with differing needs. Economic costs to comply with the ADS-B mandate will vary greatly depending on the particular airframe. There isn’t a “one size” cost. While there is a financial cost to purchasing the necessary avionic equipment, there is also a cost in waiting to upgrade. One estimated cost for the ADS-B Out ranged from $4,000 to $17,000 to equip an aircraft. The estimated cost for both ADS-B Out and ADS-B In is in the range of $30,000. The FAA began offering a monetary incentive in the fall of 2016 to help offset costs for owners of less-expensive general aviation aircraft, but the offer of a $500 rebate still leaves the owner with a sizable amount to finance for the upgrade. Waiting to upgrade could potentially lower the value of an aircraft. As the mandated deadline approaches the crunch to comply could cause labor costs to increase as well. What will happen to the cost of the ADS-B products? Is it possible the prices could increase? Or with multiple manufactures and new ADS-B products, the price could drop given healthy market competition.

There has been little incentive for early adoption of the new technology. The main benefits of the ADS-B system will be realized after widespread adoption rather than a system of partial adoption. FAA data suggests that updating progress has been slow in general aviation. Some general aviation operators may choose never to upgrade if they are not flying in the mandated airspace.

Could all planes actually be upgraded by Jan. 1, 2020? Would there be enough shops and manpower to upgrade by 2020? Is the timeline feasible? This may be another unknown.

While there are many benefits to ADS-B satellite surveillance, by mandating only the ADS-B Out the full potential of the system will not be realized. Without the ADS-B In system pilots will not be able to receive the ADS-B Out broadcasts of other aircraft.

Will the deadline be softened? Currently Airlines for America (A4A) has filed a petition with the FAA asking for a five-year transition period after the Jan. 1, 2020, deadline. If a soft deadline is granted will this delay the benefits of full compliance? Aircraft owners may choose to take a wait and see approach.

Are the new systems technically reliable? Do these systems have the capacity to handle large volumes of information? Currently the FAA is focusing on configuration errors—errors in which an aircraft’s reported GPS location jumps around creating the situation where it cannot be displayed by air traffic control or by other aircraft’s ADS-B In systems.

After researching the ADS-B topic, my dad and I had a conversation about how the FAA mandate will affect our family. In many ways, it mirrors the pros and cons already listed in the essay. My dad has always educated himself on general aviation topics. He is a progressive aviator. While this topic was relatively new to me, it certainly was not a new topic to my dad. He has been thinking about it a lot and has decisions to make that will impact our family. According to my dad, the biggest benefit will be increased safety for general aviation and that has always been foremost in his mind as a pilot whether he is flying low over agricultural land or flying higher with his family on board. He also feels that another benefit would be the improved free weather and traffic information. The negatives for our family will be the cost of upgrading to ADS-B in multiple aircraft. There is also a decision to be made whether to install both the ADS-B Out and the ADS-B In. Installing only an ADS-B Out system would be cheaper, but there are benefits in terms of safety and enhanced information in having both systems.

This has been an interesting topic to research and learn more about. Once the NextGen is in place it will be a long-term framework that provides safety and savings to a diverse aviation system. However, the change has some gray areas yet to be worked out. While there are “costs” involved with this fundamental change there are also benefits to be realized upon full implementation. Some of these benefits surpass the ability to attach a price to them. What is the value of flying in safer skies? This may be something to which monetary value cannot be assigned.

Works Cited

Adams, Todd. “ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast)”. Lancaster Avionics, Inc., Lititz, PA 17543, 2016.
Button, Kenneth PhD. “Federal aviation Administration’s 2020 NextGen Mandate: Benefits and challenges for General Aviation”. Evidence to the U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on Small Business. 11 June 2014.
Collin, Mike. “ADS-B A-OK?” AOPA. web 5 May 2016.
Department of Transportation. “Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) Out Performance Requirements To Support Air Traffic Control (ATC) Service; Final Rule.” Federal Register Vol. 75, No.103. 28 May 2010.
“Equip ADS-B FAQ”. Federal Aviation Administration. last modified 7 July 2016.
“Fact Sheet: Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B). Federal Aviation Administration.” 24 June 2010.
Frequently Asked Questions. Next Generation Air Traffic Management Specialists. ADS-B Technologies, LLC. web 24 June 2016.
“General Aviation ADS-B Rebate Program.” Federal Aviation Administration. last modified 20 July 2016.
Murdock, Sandy. “What’s Next In NextGen: ADS-B Delay?” JDA Journal. Posted 16 April 2015.
Rao, Naveen. “The Promise and challenges of NextGen.” The Air and Space Lawyer Vol. 25, No. 4, 2013.
“2012: A Look Back, and Forward – Part 2.” Freeflight Systems. created 11 February 2013.

Marietta Geist is the daughter of Dan and Sara Geist. Her father is an agricultural pilot, and her mother works for Crookston Public Schools. Together they own and operate Dan’s Flying Service in Crookston, Minn. Marietta is a student at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., pursuing a degree in mathematics. She also runs on Carleton’s cross country and track teams. Upon completion of her undergraduate studies she plans to obtain a master’s degree in aerospace engineering. In high school, Marietta was president of the Crookston High Student Council in 2016, captain of the swim and track teams, and a member of the LEO Club.