ADS-B Retrofit Market Heats Up
March 30, 2015
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  • As aircraft owners and operators become increasingly motivated by the not-so-distant Jan. 1, 2020, deadline for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), more avionics vendors are crafting their product lines to compete for the more than 100,000 general aviation and business aircraft affected by the mandate to add this equipment. As a result, prices for the hardware are dropping, but the complexities and costs of installation are not—an issue that will likely cause many owners to continue waiting for a better deal.

    L-3 Communications, partnered with ACSS, the avionics subsidiary it jointly owns withThales,, is one of several companies that are setting out to minimize the installation pain while maximizing the cost-benefit equation with new families of receivers. Aviation Week sampled the top-of-the-line system in L-3’s new Lynx family, the NGT-9000, on a demonstration flight in the company’s Beechcraft Bonanza demonstration aircraft out of the Leesburg Executive Airport in Northern Virginia on Jan. 29.

    Shortly after the flight, Garmin also came out with a new family of ADS-B receivers, called Vantage, as did Free Flight Systems with the Rangr Lite family.

    Mindful of the sensitivities of the tens of thousands of cost-constrained general aviation (GA) operators, L-3’s entry-level standalone ADS-B “Out” system, the NGT-1000, could be in a good position for heavy sales due to an incentive program that cuts the basic cost by nearly $1,000. NEXA Capital Partners, through its new Jumpstart GA 2020 campaign, recently arranged for dealer prices for 10,000 NGT-1000 units to gain an economy of scale that drops L-3’s price to $1,600 from $2,500, not including antennas or other hardware. The units are being offered on a first-come, first-served basis, and must be installed before July 1, 2016, to qualify for the discount. Competing directly with the NGT-1000 is FreeFlight Systems’ FDL-978 TXL, which lists at $2,000, including antennas and installation materials.

    The Lynx product line has four basic models, starting with the NGT-1000 and ending with the -9000. The NGT-1000 meets the minimum letter of the law for GA aircraft that fly below 18,000 ft., and the $8,300 multilink NGT-9000 satisfies the intent of the mandate for aircraft that fly at any altitude. All models include an internal Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) GPS receiver—a basic requirement for the ADS-B mandate—with the higher end offering Wi-Fi connectivity to portable device display applications or a hard-line option to an installed display. The NGT-9000 has its own resistive technology touchscreen display with traffic and weather information pages compactly placed onto a screen the size of the standard Mode C transponder head it is meant to replace. Prices do not include installation or certain required hardware.

    GA operators can generally equip in one of two ways to meet the mandate. Those that do not fly above 18,000 ft. can augment the existing Mode C transponder with a 978-MHz Universal Access Transceiver (UAT) that broadcasts WAAS GPS position and other information via a separate L-band antenna. Or they can or change out their Mode C transponder with a more expensive 1090-MHz Mode S extended squitter transponder that packages and sends out at 1-sec. intervals all the information required for ADS-B surveillance—position, identification and other information.

    The permutations within these two broad categories are many, as highlighted by the various features in the Lynx portfolio and those of many competitors.

    The NGT-1000 offers a relatively low-cost method of meeting the mandate, but in and of itself does not provide the benefits of ADS-B “In” capability. ADS-B In, while not mandated, brings in traffic reports from nearby equipped aircraft as well as free FAA-rebroadcast traffic information services (TIS-B) and weather and other advisories via the UAT link. The free weather information is not available on the 1090-MHz link, although multilink systems like the NGT-9000 contain the UAT “In” link as well. The same traffic and weather information is available today to GA pilots through a variety of non-certified portable ADS-B In devices, although traffic rebroadcasts (which show the positions of all ADS-B and Mode C aircraft as aggregated by FAA surveillance systems) can be sparse, as the FAA only distributes that information to “disks” of airspace (a 15-nm-radius +/- 3,500-ft. area) containing an aircraft with an approved ADS-B.

    Based on experience with other standalone UAT-out receivers, two L-3 avionics dealers say operators should expect to pay approximately $2,000 to install the NGT-1000, adding another $750 for the required WAAS GPS and L-band antennas. The $2,000 includes the labor cost of removing the aircraft interior to run wires to the rear of the aircraft where the unit would be mounted, work that will not be required for the NGT-9000, which is panel-mounted.

    Next in line is the $3,600 NGT-2000, which includes ADS-B In through the UAT link. A Wi-Fi “dongle”can be added to transmit traffic and weather information to portable devices, such as iPads, running the WingX and SkyRadar applications, with other applications to come in the future. L-3 is not planning to develop its own application, says demonstrator pilot Todd Scholten, who is also L-3’s business development representative for the North Central Region. For $250 more, an operator can purchase the NGT-2500, with hard-line outputs so that the information can be shown on installed displays like the Garmin MX20 and GMX 200.

    One caveat with the three Lynx UAT units is the probable need to purchase and install a separate 2-in. control panel within the pilot’s reach to synchronize the existing Mode C transponder code with the Lynx, a process that could either be done manually by reentering the code in the control panel or semi-automatically. Garmin holds a generic patent for wirelessly synchronizing the two based on the UAT antenna reading the Mode C antenna output. The patent, if honored, will require L-3 and other vendors to come up with different solutions. L-3 chose to identify a mismatch to the pilot via a small control panel, offered at $1,200, requiring the push of a single button to synchronize. “It’s not ideal, but it is the only way can do it right now,” says Scholten. The manual synchronization is not required if the existing Mode C transponder is a Garmin GTX 327 or GTX 330. Garmin, considered L-3’s main competition in this space, takes advantage of its automatic synchronization in marketing for its new $4,000 GDL 84 ADS-B unit, which goes head-to-head with the NGT-2000.

    Code augmentation is not an issue with the NGT-9000, a 1090-MHz Mode S extended squitter ADS-B that completely replaces a legacy transponder. L-3 sees the greatest potential for sales with the NGT-9000, particularly to operators already equipped with its SkyWatch traffic advisory systems (TAS). SkyWatch actively queries the skies for other aircraft using Mode C transponders, filtering the incoming data through a directional antenna to displaying relative position information in the cockpit as well as alerting the pilot to certain encounters.

    The system performs in much the same way as a traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS II) but is not certified for that purpose. TCAS II is required for all aircraft over 12,600 lb. or carrying more than 19 passengers. Scholten says the owners of more than 15,000 SkyWatch systems can replace the onboard equipment with the Lynx-9000 and likely have money left over after selling the SkyWatch, given that the market for the equipment remains strong around the world. In areas where all aircraft are equipped with ADS-B, a SkyWatch system would seem to have minimal value, but Scholten notes that many operators may choose to keep their Mode C transponders and avoid controlled airspace where ADS-B is required, and in certain locations the rebroadcasted ADS-B positions may not always be available, effectively making those aircraft invisible to ADS-B In. “It covers all the bases,” Scholten says of the TAS functionality.

    To suit the variety of higher-end units, the NGT-9000 comes in six varieties, including: a version with no touchscreen, one capable of antenna diversity (antennas on the top and bottom of the aircraft), one with active traffic advisories (covering the SkyWatch functions), and several permutations therein. All of the units include a 1090-MHz “In” link and UAT In links for traffic rebroadcast and weather input.

    For our demonstration flight, L-3 used an NGT-9000+, which includes the touchscreen display, belly-mounted L-band antenna and top-mounted GPS-antenna, as well as active traffic sensing (the “+”). Prior to the flight, Scholten explained the various pages for the split-screen display. On the left side, pages can be cycled between the basic transponder page (showing the squawk code and transmission mode) and a view of traffic as close in as 1 nm and as far out as 40 nm with several filters to cut down on irrelevant targets. The right side has four pages—traffic; weather, airport and chart details; winds and temperatures aloft; and textual descriptions of Notices to Airmen and other information.

    The system operated as advertised in a bumpy flight in the hilly area west of Leesburg, with traffic bound for nearby Dulles International Airport prominently displayed on the left screen and an incoming weather front and freezing precipitation on the right screen, which included color-coded markers denoting the present weather conditions at nearby airports. As advertised by Scholten, the resistive touch technology required a firm push to swipe between pages, but the process was not unpleasant and made for fewer false inputs in choppy turbulence. There are also touchscreen buttons for changing pages.

    Users with aging eyesight may prefer to see the data on a larger screen (the installed screen is approximately 6 X 1.5 in.), but there is Wi-Fi connectivity to show the information on applications like WingX. “We are talking to all the popular applications providers,” says Scholten. “We think that once [Lynx] gets in the field, customers will drive the development of new apps.”