Helicopter communications and flight tracking are becoming more reliable, consistent, and affordable; thanks to a multi-platform (cellular/radio/satellite) approach being taken by manufacturers and service providers alike. Here’s a sampling of what’s available today to keep helicopter pilots and their ground stations connected and constantly informed.
Dallas Avionics Enables Cross-Band Communications
Years after 9/11, first responders still remember the coordination problems they experienced due to a lack of interoperable radio communications. Even today, interoperability between different first-responder agencies is not a given, which is why Dallas Avionics (www.dallasavionics.com) multi-band radio offering cross module repeating is worthy of note.
Based upon the Technisonic TDFM 9100 Series P25 FM Communications transceiver integrated with the Iridium satellite telephone, this RF package allows agencies to work together across radio and satellite bands. “The Technisonic TDFM 9100 can also act as a cross-band repeater,” said Scott Hurst, Dallas Avionics’ sales and technical support manager. “Say you have someone who is on 800 MHz, and you’ve got someone else in the air who is on VHF: We’re now able to do a patch between those guys,” he said. “So if law enforcement is doing a vehicle chase across multiple municipalities, they can now link everyone together. Should we ever have another 9/11-type disaster, the cross-band repeater could link first responders on different radio systems together if a repeater tower went down.”
“Another big thing that’s come out, since Latitude Technologies has joined up with Technisonics, is the ability for helicopter operators to have Push-to-Talk (PTT) connections to other aircraft and ground stations in their talk group via radio and Iridium satellite; no matter when they are in the world,” Hurst added. The talk groups can be configured and altered as needed by the operators’ dispatch centers. “No one has to dial phone numbers anymore: The talk groups can be set up to do this automatically via PTT,” he said. “Helicopter operators now have access to true interoperable communications; no matter what the bands, platforms, and locations of the users.”
Flightcell DZMx Offers Multi-Path, Multimedia Communications
Flightcell International Limited of New Zealand (www.flightcell.com) bills its compact Flightcell DZMx direct-entry communications unit as “the world's only all-in-one solution for global voice, data, messaging, and flight tracking.” They might also want to promote its minuscule size: Measuring only 4.95" (125mm) wide by 2.18" (55 mm) high and 4.72" (120mm) deep, the Flightcell DZMx is a very small device that can fit into the most cramped cockpit.
“The Flightcell DZMx platform provides both satellite (Iridium) and cellular technology to enable voice, satellite, cellular broadband data, and tracking solutions,” said Michael Eddy, Flightcell’s marketing, and communications manager. “The DZMx has a flexible architecture that allows for more than 40 upgradable configurations and is tailored to customer requirements. We have recently released built-in WiFi and Bluetooth for the DZMx to satisfy customer demand. We have also developed file transfer via Dropbox and secure cellular transmission via virtual private networks (VPN).”
When asked about trends in the helicopter communications space, Eddy says, “We see other companies following our lead and bringing cellular communications products to the market, primarily for flight tracking and data applications, We are also seeing a demand for onboard wireless connectivity and the benefits it provides. Customers want to connect their smart devices in-flight. They want to be able to use operational programs, send and receive email, send and receive text messages, and access the internet.”
“An important requirement that we are now also able to satisfy is the ability to connect to onboard devices,” Eddy added. As an example, he cited the need for today’s air medical aircraft to receive patient data on their aerial PCs and tablets, as well as sending patient data from the aircraft’s medical monitoring equipment to the medical care facility they are flying to. “Our system can provide these data connections over cellular networks, while also providing medical crew initiated dial-up voice comms when needed,” said Eddy.
Looking ahead, Eddy expects advances in low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites to result in even-better communications services for helicopters. “We expect our customers to have access to higher data rates once Iridium NEXT is up and running,” he said. “This will expand the scope of what can now be achieved over the cellular network to a global level. At the same time, high data rates over satellite and 4K video over cellular networks are still limitations,” he says.
Spidertracks Provides Affordable Aircraft Tracking
Aircraft tracking and emergency messaging that everyone can afford—that’s the mission of New Zealand’s Spidertracks (www.spidertracks.com). “For years, the only onboard aircraft tracking systems you could buy were about the size of a suitcase, and cost $20,000 or more,” said Todd O'Hara, Spidertracks’ chief marketing officer. “With Spidertracks, we distrusted this market 10 years ago, and you can now get this capability for a few dollars a flight hour – or less.” The system is paid for by a low monthly fee based on flight hours, and a $49 charge for the tracking hardware.
The Spidertracks system has kept costs down by reducing the onboard ‘Spider’ aerial location tracking unit to its basics. “Our Spider contains built-in GPS/satellite antennas, a GPS tracking unit, an Iridium terminal for connecting to satellites, a Bluetooth device to connect to the pilot’s Android or iOS smartphone for cellular connectivity, and a circuit board that controls it all,” O'Hara said. “The system that the messaging platform is built on is designed so that it only switches to satellite when a cellular network can’t be detected, to keep transmission expenses to a minimum.”
There are two Spiders to choose from; both for $49 each with a service subscription plan. Each is about the size of a cigarette package. The small, dash-mounted Spider 6 can support two-way text messaging when paired via Bluetooth with the pilot’s smartphone; it can plug in using a cigarette lighter or direct wiring for power; and send regular positioning data to the Spidertrack website and any third-party providers chosen by the aircraft owner/operator. If there is an incident and the Spider 6 ceases sending signals for 15 minutes, an SOS will be automatically triggered on the Spidertrack website, with the last positioning information being made available to search-and-rescue agencies. The Spider 6 also has a simple ‘SOS’ button on its front panel, for quick alerts to ground stations during emergencies.
The Spider 8 offers the same capabilities in a behind-the-console unit (with separate external input keyboard) that can connect to a universal aircraft interface (UAI). This allows aircraft operators to detect and transmit up to four discrete inputs/outputs through the Spider and the Spidertracks platform from anywhere on the planet. The Spider 8 can also accept connection to an external antenna, for greater range and sensitivity.
“With Spidertracks, pilots can keep the world alerted as to their positions and progress; no matter what their budgets,” said Todd O'Hara. When asked how Spidertracks packed so much into such small packages, O'Hara quipped, “Kiwi ingenuity!”
Technisonic Enables Interoperability
As noted above in the Dallas Avionics’ section, Technisonics has joined with Latitude Technologies to create a P25 ‘cross-band repeater’ radio platform; one that can interconnect a range of radio bands (VHF, UHF, 700 and 800 MHz) with satellite communications via the Iridium satellite network.
According to the Technisonic website (www.til.ca), “Project 25 or P25 is a common set of digital protocols that, when implemented, would support interoperability across radio manufacturers. Today’s mission based aircraft operate all across the P25 spectrum, whether you are talking across the county or across the state, P25 capability is required.”
Technisonic makes a range of P25 airborne FM transceivers, grouped together in its TDFM-9000/9100/9200/9300 series product line. “Our specialty lies in designing radios that meet the unique communications needs of our clients,” said Jim Huddock, Technisonic’s business development manager. “An EMS helicopter may have a requirement for a UHF radio to speak on the hospital frequency, whereas a federal mission-based helicopter is more focussed on VHF.” In either case, Technisonic interviews the customers to find out what their missions requirements are and how their radios are used aloft, and then configures transceivers to meet their needs.
In addition to adding satellite calling and PTT functionality to their TDFM line of radios (again in partnership with Latitude Technologies), Technisonic has found a way to integrate users’ legacy non-P25 radios into their TDFM P25 radios using multi-communications ports (MCPs). “The MCP allows us to connect an external transceiver directly into our radio,” said Huddock. “This provides a simple, easy-to-use connection, avoiding the need to rewire audio panels.”
TracPlus Goes Far Beyond Position Reports
When New Zealand’s TracPlus (www.tracplus.com) was launched in 2007, its primary purpose has been to provide reliable, flexible real-time tracking of aircraft equipped with GPS-enabled positional transmission equipment at a low monthly cost that everyone could afford.
“Since that time, we’ve seen a lot of advances in how our customers use our service,” said Chris Hinch, TracPlus chief innovation officer. “Using equipment made by Trotter Controls, Flightcell International and Rock Seven, our customers now send tracking and event data to other software systems, such as accounting and maintenance systems, automatically and in real time; saving hundreds of office hours each year of data re-entry and transcribing pilots notes.”
This is just part of TracPlus’ vision of what Hinch calls “the globally connected cockpit,” where TracPlus provides seamless tracking, event and global text messaging services, not only from air to ground and back, but between aircraft.
Still, that’s not all: “We can now let people on the ground mark their location in an emergency and tell a nearby aircraft to ‘find me,’” Hinch said. "A pilot conducting a search-and-rescue can mark the location of floating wreckage in their EFB and share that in real time with a coast guard vessel. A fire spotter wearing an augmented reality helmet can plot a fire bombing run with drop-start and drop-stop points directly into the gate controller onboard another aircraft, all using our new messaging system.”
TracPlus is continuing to build new capabilities into its global messaging platform such as sending detailed flight briefings and other long messages to aircraft via satellite that are otherwise unable to receive this essential information by any other means. “By breaking up these large messages we can reassemble them on the aircraft in remote locations, allowing the aircraft to fly a mission that it would be otherwise unable to.”