Talking the same language

Talking the same language

Effective communication is one of the most important elements of safe missions in the vertical flight industry. Whether relaying information to emergency teams in critical rescue missions, communicating with ground crews or air traffic controllers, the ability to do so accurately and efficiently is critical. The Vertical Flight Expo & Conference (VFE) team addresses the challenges for communication both on the ground and in the air, and how new technology is aiding mission success.

According to the Civil Aviation Authority, London alone saw more than 22,300 helicopters take to the skies in 2018[1]. To ensure the safe passage and arrival of an aircraft and its passengers, the communication between pilots, air traffic controllers and ground crews is paramount. In fact, a lapse in communication can mean the difference between a mission’s success and its failure, and in extreme cases – life or death.

In its most basic form, communications and connectivity help ensure operators across the aviation industry can work safely in what is a vast and complex environment – global airspace. Managing just a small region of the world’s airspace requires significant coordination, with communication at its heart. Take the helicopters flying in the London (Heathrow) and London City Control Zones (CTRs), all of which are subject to an Air Traffic Control (ATC) clearance. Single-engined helicopters are required to fly along designated helicopter routes, while multi-engine helicopters can be provided with an ATC clearance to transit on more direct routes through the CTRs[2].

In addition, police and Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) operating multi-engined helicopters are subject to special requirements due to the nature of the tasks they are performing. Here, HEMS and police operators will often have the clearance to fly at lower altitudes or hold over specific locations.

And, while communicating with ATCs and flight control centres is critical, it is just the first step in understanding the role communication plays across the industry. Every single aircraft operating in the global airspace is an information hub, it receives and transmits a stream of data from relaying important information from tactical information, instructions from ATC, navigation, GPS, distance measuring equipment (DME), Satcom telephones, weather radar systems. And, more importantly, all of these streams of information must be coordinated and accurately understood in order to be compiled with.

Ultimately, communications not only help to avoid collisions but assist in important mission-specific information. Take HEMS missions, for example. On or above the scene, a pilot must be able to monitor flight and weather conditions, relay information to trained crew, accept instructions and in many examples, navigate remote and dangerous locations. This will no doubt sound familiar for the search and rescue teams who have encountered this scenario more than 2,438 times in the UK in just a 12-month period[3].

And it’s not just the HEMS industry facing these challenges. Revealed in the Department for Transport, Search and Rescue Helicopter Statistics: Year ending March 2019, the UK’s Sumburgh Search and Rescue (SAR) base was identified as having the highest proportion of rescue or recovery missions (83%) with the majority taking place at sea. These often complicated, high-risk operations require a highly-efficient communications process to reduce redundant information relayed to the aircraft, helping both the pilot and crew focus on what is directly required in each unique SAR mission.

Unfortunately, despite the critical role of communications in the wider aviation industries, there are many challenges that hinder efficient and accurate communications in the air. While the challenges posed by the aircraft’s own noisy environment have largely been conquered with efficient noise-cancelling technology, microphones are also required to filter out loud cockpit noises to allow for smooth crew conversations.

And, interference, such as electrostatic discharge (ESD), still cause problems onboard.

Advances in technology

Demonstrating the importance of communications for successful missions across a multitude of sectors, exhibitors at this year’s Vertical Flight Expo will highlight the advances in technology that is enabling improved dialogue between pilots, air and ground crews.

One such company demonstrating the future of airborne communications is Axnes As. The company will demonstrate its advanced and highly durable wireless intercom solutions that are designed to perform in extreme conditions and on a wide variety of platforms. For example, its PNG System is a mission capable wireless ICS extension, which enables crew to maintain full-duplex communication. It can be retrofitted and configured to work with any existing ICS or helmet/headset combination. In addition, secure communications are made available through software or hardware encryption according to operator requirements.

Becker Avionics GmbH will showcase its TG660-VHF/AM Transceiver, a land-based panel for airfields, airports, airlines and control centres, allowing for balanced voice recording output and with built-in battery for emergency operations. While Flightcell International, a global producer of airborne integrated-mobile communications, will highlight its Flightcell DZMx, described as the ‘world’s only all-in-one satellite and cellular solution for global voice, data and aircraft tracking’.

Designed to maximise space within the cockpit – which is already at a premium – the DZMx also offer operators with a built-in WiFi hotspot and router that provides a cellular broadband data connection for onboard smart devices and connected equipment without the need for a separate WiFi router installation. It means that operators can move data and information to and from the aircraft, easily enhancing operations.

Communication is key

The importance of effective and efficient communications in the aviation industry cannot be overstated. Understanding, translating and acting on the five primary channels (verbal, nonverbal, written, written and graphics, and human-machine and machine-machine) is critical for the success of a mission, the safety of those on board, and the ongoing management of global airspace.

[1] https://publicapps.caa.co.uk/docs/33/CAP1456Graphs2007ToSeptember2019.pdf

[2] https://www.caa.co.uk/Data-and-analysis/Airspace-and-environment/Airspace/London-helicopter-operations/

[3] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/808276/sarh-statistics-year-ending-march-2019.pdf

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