Behind closed doors

April 28, 2008 by Paul Richfield, Senior Editor

Who decides where avionics trends are going? The manufacturers do, to a great extent. But don’t rule out a relatively obscure agency deep within the Washington, D.C., beltway known as RTCA. Its scientists and working groups often have a lot of influence over what happens to which systems and platforms, and when.

Some very interesting things are cooking over at RTCA right now. Working group SC-213 is considering just how the new generation of synthetic vision systems from Garmin, Honeywell, and others, will achieve that Holy Grail of avionics achievement: operational credit. In other words, they’re going to decide when and how pilots can use these systems to descend below decision height on ILS approaches, and below minimum descent altitude on non-precision approaches.

“Until they do that, these things are just expensive toys that don’t take you anywhere you can’t already go,” a knowledgeable source big in EVS/SVS development confided in me at the recent AEA show in Washington.

Down the hall at RTCA, another working group, SC-218, will convene in a few weeks to determine the future relationship between ADS-B, the new GPS-based air traffic management tool, and TCAS, the transponder-based anti-collision system already in wide, FAA-mandated use aboard turbine aircraft.

Not only will this group consider the extent to which next-generation TCAS or another “future collision avoidance system” will remain aloof from air traffic controllers, it will establish guidelines for TCAS use of ADS-B data. In addition, SC-218 is likely to discuss (and ultimately decide) the future of Mode A/C/S transponders, as well as the timeframes of new equipment changes.

“Most of what RTCA does is pretty low-bandwidth from an excitement standpoint, but it’s pretty important stuff,” another source told me. He would know–he works up at another hotbed of avionics innovation and policy development: MIT’s Lincoln Labs.

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