Andrew Healey in London

The US Federal Aviation Admini­stration has come to an agreement with Gulf of Mexico helicopter operators, and their oil company customers, to improve communications, weather monitoring and flight-tracking capabilities in the region. Formal approval is anticipated next week with up to $80 million to be made available from January 2007.

Key to these improvements will be the rolling out, over the next eight years, of the nationwide automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast system (ADS-B). Coverage in the Gulf area is expected within three years and the installation of ground-based stations – capable of broadcasting over line-of-sight distances of up to 200km (110nm) – will begin once funding is in place. Using GPS data and moving-map displays, helicopters will automatically transmit their position and receive traffic reports and proximity warnings from nearby aircraft; together with weather reports and information about temporary flight restrictions and special use airspace.

Around 650 helicopters make 7,500 trips a day to more than 5,000 offshore Gulf oil and gas platforms. Helicopter Association International president Matt Zuccaro says: “The majority of them operate without the ability to communicate with or be seen by ATC, get current weather or other services provided to similar land-based operations”. This problem is exacerbated by the altitudes at which they fly, typically below radar coverage at around 1,500ft.

Over the past six years, ADS-B has been evaluated in Alaska as part of the FAA’s Capstone project and has been endorsed by airlines such as UPS, which plans to install the equipment in over 100 of its aircraft. FAA administrator Marion Blakey says: “ADS-B is our best chance to step up to [air traffic control] challenges of the 21st century”.

Source: Flight International