Talking to the folks at the leading ADS-B manufacturers it’s easy to forget that just a year ago the prospects for making any money selling gear for the FAA’s next-gen surveillance scheme sounded far-fetched, because this year everybody who had ADS-B gear to sell was making money hand over fist. This was true for Sporty’s and Appareo who along with partner ForeFlight were early to market with the Stratus box, an $800 portable unit that gets ADS-B weather and displays it smartly on your ForeFlight app on your iPad . . . all wirelessly. It was also true for FreeFlight, which had a remote-mount ADS-B box that does In and Out and will soon link popular displays, says FreeFlight, all for around $6,000. Garmin was at Oshkosh this year with boxes of each variety, and flavors of all of the above, including a portable ADS-B unit that does weather and traffic. There were ADS-B solutions from Dual, from Sagetech, from SkyRadar and others, and customers were lining up to check them out and put their money down.
This should make the FAA happy, but it hasn’t. People are equipping with ADS-B because of the benefits (traffic and weather), just as the feds hoped they would, but they’re not doing it the right way, that is, by getting a panel-mount ADS-B with “out” capability.
Unless you have the “out” ability, which you only get with a certificated panel-mounted unit, you aren’t, to borrow the FAA’s term for it, participating. You’re coming to the potluck but you failed to bring a casserole. When 2020 rolls around, you’d better have that dish hot and ready if you want to fly places where there are houses and roads around. But for now, you can freeload. It’s what I’m doing.
The reason people can get by with ADS-B “In” only is because of the rise of portable units, which are a legal cheat, the existence of which the feds apparently never envisioned, unlike every aviation geek in the world who immediately thought of the idea of a portable receiver as soon as the FAA announced the weather benefit.
The issues with portables are twofold. First, they can never be ADS-B Out boxes because to do that, according to a RF guy I trust, they’d need to transmit at high power, so unless you want to cook lunch on the glareshield while you’re sending your signal, a portable ADS-B Out unit isn’t a great idea. It’s also questionably legal.
I say questionably, because the regulations, which require such equipment to meet the regs (not to be certified, mind you, but to meet them) are pretty fuzzy on the subject. That’s why you can have experimental transponders: because they have to meet the TSO but they don’t have to be TSO authorized. It’s the same with ADS-B.
The thing that the FAA didn’t see coming was that pilots were going to be more excited about the weather than the traffic. The Stratus box doesn’t even provide traffic, in part because the developers thought that ADS-B In only traffic wasn’t ready for prime time.
ADS-B traffic is really a “some traffic” awareness utility that leaves you completely blind to other traffic. If you are “in” only, then you only see ADS-B traffic in your line of sight, and other traffic that your ADS-B target is “lighting up” in proximity to a ground station.
The practical effect is that you see clumps of traffic around ground stations when an ADS-B target is nearby, which is great, but you’ll miss most of the rest of the targets pretty much the entire rest of the time.
Which leads to the question: Is it better to have some traffic than none at all? I think so, but reasonable pilots and reasonable manufacturers disagree on this one.
But it’s not that simple. (As though any of this is “simple.”) The FAA makes it even worse by purposely choosing to not send a lot of the traffic info to non-participating airplanes that airplanes with panel-mount gear do get. “If you don’t bring a record,” they seem to be saying, “we won’t let you dance at our party.” It’s their way of encouraging people to equip with ADS-B Out.
Which is all well and good until somebody with ADS-In hits somebody else they might otherwise have seen and the FAA has to explain why it took such a foolhardy risk with our safety.
The end result for the FAA is that there are going to be thousands of pilots (already are, in fact) flying around with ADS-B In waiting until 2020 or near then to equip. So the level of participation will be lower for longer as a result of the FAA’s ham-handed amateur motivational schemes, when if they had just left well enough alone, there’d be many more owners dropping certified gear into their panels and, hence, fully participating in this ADS-B scheme, which by its nature, requires a community commitment.
So much for the FAA’s social engineering plans.