Left Seat: Collins Improves Ground Safety

Collins' Pro Line Fusion improves safety; the full picture on Nexrad and storm avoidance might not be so clear; human pilots can be the problem in failed UAV missions.

This is what the ground safety display looks like in Pro Line Fusion when the cockpit crew has entered Runway 12 as the takeoff runway at Albuquerque.

Collins' New Pro Line Fusion avionics system that will debut in the Bombardier Global Express has all the features you would expect in a top-of-the-line flat-glass avionics system. The displays are huge; the synthetic vision view of the terrain ahead of the airplane is sharp and detailed; and there are innovative formats to display weather and navigation data.

From what I have seen, however, Fusion's greatest advance is improving safety on the ground. Taxiway and runway confusion by jet pilots is one of the most significant remaining safety concerns, and Fusion gives pilots the information they need to avoid wrong-runway takeoff attempts or runway incursions.

There are already systems that track an airplane's position on the airport and issue an alert any time the airplane is about to enter or cross a runway. That can be a big help in avoiding a runway incursion because the crew is notified as it approaches a runway in time to double-check that it is cleared to cross or enter. The drawback of that type of system is the nuisance of being alerted to every runway intersection even when you know exactly where you are and what your taxi clearance is.

Instead, Collins chose to take a graphical approach backed up by aural alerts to enhance ground operation safety. And the system looks very good.

The locations of all runways at any significant airport are very precisely surveyed and are stored in the electronic database that provides the necessary information for ground proximity warning and to create the synthetic vision system (SVS) display. In other words, the necessary data for the system is already on board nearly all jets. Taxiways, ramps and other airport surface locations are not always stored with the same precision, so it is really the runways and their locations that matter to the safety warning system.

When you enter the assigned takeoff runway in the Fusion flight management system, that runway is boldly outlined in blue on the airport diagram display. Chevrons point in the takeoff direction so that it is clear which is Runway 12 instead of Runway 30, even though they are actually the same strip of pavement. The assigned runway has large identification numbers at the ends with a bubble surrounding the number pointing in the proper direction. All other runway ends in view on the page are identified in the same way.

Your position on the airport is symbolized as an airplane outline, and Fusion shows the progress of your airplane as you move over the ramps and taxiways. All taxiways are clearly labeled so it's easy to see that you are on the assigned route. It's also easy to see at a glance your relationship to all runways in addition to the intended runway, so if you look at the display at all, there should be no runway incursion.

The Fusion ground safety system really pays off at airports such as Albuquerque, where several runways intersect and departure points for different runways can be quite close together. The graphic display shows you which taxiway to follow to get to your assigned runway, which is brightly highlighted in blue.

Because Fusion is fully integrated into all airplane systems, it knows when you advance the power beyond what's necessary for taxi. If you are not on the assigned runway when you bring the power up, you get an aural warning telling you in plain language that you are on a taxiway or the wrong runway, along with a general takeoff warning.

This system would almost certainly have prevented the regional airliner accident in Kentucky in which the crew lined up on the wrong, and too short, runway. And there have been other similar incidents and accidents around the world, usually during low-visibility operations, that Fusion would have helped pilots avoid.

The Fusion ground safety display has the capacity to expand as ADS-B comes on line and all airplanes automatically broadcast their identification and position. When that happens, the position of those airplanes will be displayed on the airport surface map to reduce the chances of a collision on a taxiway or runway no matter how low the visibility.

What Nexrad May Miss
I have been flying with both XM Weather and WSI/Avidyne satellite weather in my Baron for a couple of years. Both systems have been reliable, and usually the Nexrad weather radar composite images show essentially the same returns. Garmin and Avidyne have set the echo strength levels differently, so often what is yellow Level Two on the Avidyne will show as only Level One green on the Garmin, but the area of precipitation target coverage is typically very close.

While flying near Erie, Pennsylvania, however, I found a substantial difference in the radar picture presented by the two services. It was one of those unstable days when rain showers and thunderstorms were popping up all over the place. Most were not severe, and many didn't show lightning, at least as tracked by the ground stations and sent down via the satellite. The storm action really heated up in the lee of Lake Erie, which was warm enough to put the essential moisture into the air to get convection going.

Both WSI and XM Weather assemble their composite Nexrad radar images at approximately five-minute intervals. Over most of the contiguous United States, the individual Nexrad radar sweeps overlap, so a single spot on the ground may be swept by two or even three radars. The radars are not synchronized, so the five-minute view can represent brand-new data from one radar while the targets may be five minutes old from another. And the software used to assemble the individual radar returns into a single composite image is proprietary to each weather data provider, and each decides how to present a combined view of the several radars covering an area.

This is all explanation for why new composite images arrived from WSI and XM close together but showed different information. On the WSI composite, there was a return just west of the Erie VOR that was several miles in diameter showing Levels One, Two and Three precipitation, but there was nothing shown in that spot on XM. The echo was on the controller's scope because he began to vector pilots — including me — around it. Before long, I could see with my own eyes the dark-bottomed buildup with rain pouring out the bottom.

Even at Baron speeds, five minutes while waiting for a new Nexrad image covers about 20 nm, so you could be surprised in a situation such as this if you relied only on satellite Nexrad for storm avoidance. The next radar picture from XM did show the new storm, so I guess the radar sweep used to make the previous composite had gone by too long ago to make the picture.

This is not to say the WSI is superior to XM, though each service has arguments about why its product is better, but it is a reminder that satellite Nexrad is not foolproof for storm avoidance. Make no mistake: Nexrad in the cockpit has changed my flying comfort and habits more than any other new technology that I can think of in years. I now make weather deviations even hundreds of miles away based on the reliability of Nexrad. But when the cells are popping up close, you need something more than a look at a ground-based radar picture of the weather that can be well over five minutes old.

Pilots Are the Problem
While I was in Tel Aviv to celebrate the rollout of the new Gulfstream G250 at Israel Aerospace Industries where it will be built, the Israelis showed us around the rest of the IAI operation, including the unmanned aerial vehicle program.

IAI is the global pioneer in UAVs, having designed and built them since the 1970s. It makes all sorts of machines, from small hand-launched UAVs intended to look around corners or over a hill for short-range tactical work, to very large ice-protected airplanes that can loiter aloft with all sorts of sensors for more than a day before returning for fuel. IAI is good at building the airplanes themselves, but its real technology lead is in the sensors and guidance systems the UAVs carry. Much of the information about the sensors is secret, but it did reveal that its synthetic aperture radar is sensitive enough to make out specific objects and vehicles on the ground while peering through clouds or total darkness.

A primary mission of the UAV is to gather and send back information about possible enemy activity by showing TV pictures, infrared, radar or data from other sensors. But an equally important IAI capability is precision targeting of all sorts of otherwise dumb munitions. Typically what happens is a laser from the UAV designates the target, and the weapon homes in on the laser. Even something as crude as a mortar shell now has a guidance system built by IAI and uses fins and small wings deployed after the launch to "fly" to the laser spot. IAI believes that ballistic aiming of artillery, mortars or rockets are, or soon will be, a thing of the past.

But during its decades of UAV development, IAI has identified a problem — the human pilot. In its experience, the crash or other failure of a UAV mission has almost always been caused by a pilot's mistake as he tried to fly the aircraft remotely from the ground. Even when the human pilot was performing well, loss of signal could also doom the mission.

The IAI answer is robotics. In other words, the UAV flies itself. The robotics of the larger UAVs is so good that they can operate from regular airports, fitting in with normal traffic and even responding to a takeoff clearance. The UAVs depart with the anticipated mission programmed into memory, but if the situation changes, new instructions can be sent while the UAV is in flight. But, the basic flying tasks, including the landing and recovery, are automatic.

As a pilot, I find this discouraging, but not surprising. The real surprise was that the UAV program at IAI is headed up by a retired fighter pilot who made general in the Israeli Air Force, and he is downright adamant that it is human pilots screwing things up. He told us the UAV program really made great strides when IAI realized that pilots were the weak link. I wonder how long it will be before a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot and general realizes — and admits — the same thing.

Comfort and Work in G550
Gulfstream flew a few aviation writers from Dulles Airport near Washington to Tel Aviv for the G250 rollout ceremony aboard a G550. This longest range Gulfstream — until the G650 enters service — is one of only a couple other purpose-built jets capable of making the approximately 5,200 nm trip nonstop, particularly the return westbound against the prevailing winds.

To say that the G550 is a comfortable way to travel is belaboring the obvious. We climbed directly to 41,000 feet to be above the sometimes-crowded airline tracks, and then, as fuel burned off, we stepped up to 45,000 and 47,000 feet while averaging Mach .85. The crew of three pilots rotated through the cockpit seats and the private crew rest area, and the cabin attendant kept us very well fed and watered.

But it didn't take long for all of us to pull out computers of some sort and go to work. The G550 is equipped with a wireless network and stays connected via satellite over the middle of the Atlantic, as well as over land. We read e-mails, wrote and edited articles and pretty much did what we would have done from our offices. The cabin space to spread out made it easy to work without disturbing the others. The only difference is that the G550 is more comfortable than my office, and during the 10-hour +30-flight eastbound and 12-hour flight back, most of us took at least a short nap. The market for the G550 remains strong because, well, there is nothing else that can transport you on such a trip with so much efficiency and comfort. I love to fly Gulfstreams, but the cabin is one heck of a great place to be when spanning oceans and continents.