Tech log: Testing the PilotAware electronic conspicuity device
PUBLISHED: 15:10 24 September 2019 | UPDATED: 15:27 24 September 2019
Testing the affordable electronic conspicuity device in the air - and becoming a convert | Words: Stephen Walker - Photos: Sally George
Last summer I had the fright of my life. Flying near Thame in Buckinghamshire, I was happily heading home to Denham airfield on a perfect VFR day.
The sun was shining in the bluest of skies, visibility was unlimited and my mind−it must be confessed−was wandering slightly with thoughts of the excellent lunch I had enjoyed earlier that afternoon.
Then, with a suddenness that turned my stomach into ice, another aircraft ripped out of nowhere, right past my windscreen. Somehow, amazingly, I missed it. Almost as worryingly, I never saw it coming in the first place. The sky, they say, is a big place. But it's not that big.
Until that encounter, the buzzwords electronic conspicuity−or 'EC'−did not register especially deeply on my grey matter. Now I decided to do something about it before I scared myself, possibly quite literally, to death.
An additional motive was that the area where I happen to do most of my flying is a nasty bottleneck of low-level uncontrolled airspace squeezed between Heathrow's control zone to the south and Luton and Stansted to the north.
Sometimes it seems as if the UK's entire GA fleet is channelling through this one choke point at exactly the same time. And, tragically, collisions have occurred there.
Despite excellent, though inevitably sometimes overloaded, radar services available from Farnborough, the fact is that you're often on your own out there in cowboy country, dependent on an eyeball that might be looking at the wrong place at the wrong time. Or, as in my case, not looking at all.
As I write, there are currently a number of devices on the market offering some version of 'affordable' electronic conspicuity for light aircraft. This is a fast-changing field and the different products can be a little bewildering.
What follows is not a comprehensive survey, but simply my personal take on just one of them; PilotAware. Think of it as a first-timer's review, if you like, as I take PilotAware on three flights to find out what it does, and how well−or not−I think it does it. If this report helps others make up their own minds about PilotAware, bearing in mind that it is just one person's perspective, then so much the better.
Most readers are probably familiar by now with the difference between the two basic forms of EC−to see, and to be seen. In the group-owned Cessna 182 I fly, we already had the latter, since installing ADS-B Out capability via our transponder last summer.
That meant any aircraft able to receive ADS-B traffic signals would see us too. But we would not see them. To do that we needed to take the next step up the EC ladder, and that step took us to PilotAware.
Why PilotAware? Well, to begin with it was relatively inexpensive−a tad under £250 in its simplest, portable form. It looked straightforward to set up, linking seamlessly with SkyDemon running on an iPad or iPhone (and will equally work with a number of similar apps).
Most importantly, out of all the low-cost EC devices out there, it appeared to offer the widest spectrum of traffic information in the crowded skies we flew, more of which later.
All big plusses. So let's break down what, exactly, you get for your money.
The latest incarnation of PilotAware is called the Rosetta. It's basically a lightweight, oblong box, approximately 13cm by 6cm, containing its own GPS, microcomputer, wifi and updateable SD card.
In its portable version, it also sprouts two, rather chunky, aerials which can be positioned in almost any direction for optimum results. The whole ensemble sits on the glareshield although, with the aerials pointing in different directions for best reception, it begins to resemble the sort of array you might find on top of a 1950s TV set.
If you want to hear Pilot Aware's traffic audio, you'll need to connect your headset or intercom directly into the Rosetta via a 3.5mm jack. I believe that an imminent software update will also make it possible to Bluetooth it in.
Getting the correct power supply is critical, as attested by the considerable amount of ink devoted to this subject in the manual. Our cigarette lighter, adapted to take USB inputs, did the trick just fine.
A better alternative to those chunky, and frankly distracting, aerials−and one we quickly adopted−is to fork out another hundred pounds or so to buy an internal antenna installation kit. This gives you the option to fit one tiny aerial neatly on a discreet corner of the windscreen and the other almost invisibly on a side window.
Result? A much cleaner set-up, ready for business.
The two aerials do quite different things. One of them, using a dedicated frequency, picks up any PilotAware traffic while also broadcasting your own precise position to other PilotAware users. Very useful given the number of those users is on the rise. The second aerial picks up ADS-B signals from other aircraft which have that equipment.
All this traffic information is sent directly to your tablet or smartphone via PilotAware's own in-cockpit wifi. You can then choose to display it either on a PilotAware 'virtual radar' screen or on your moving map in a navigation app like SkyDemon or Easy VFR, among others.
When traffic gets close, the system also generates voice alerts, not dissimilar to the sort of thing you'd hear in a live radar service. You can also configure the range and vertical parameters within which traffic will get displayed−helpful for removing useless clutter, such as airliners trundling along thirty-five thousand feet above your head.
Pilot Aware claims that it can receive a wider variety of traffic than any other low-cost EC device on the market right now. As well as ADS-B and Pilot Aware traffic, the unit will also pick up Mode C and S (although not Mode A) transmissions from other aircraft. What it cannot do is display that traffic's actual position.
Instead you'll get a 'bearingless' alert based on the strength of the target transponder's transmission, without determining exactly where it is. You'll also get a vertical distance from the target, even though it could be in any one of 360 degrees around you. Sounds a little confusing? We'll see how it works out in a moment.
One final point before we go flying. For some time now, PilotAware has been encouraging enthusiasts and airfield operators up and down the country (and on the Continent too) to upgrade something called the Open Glider Network, an existing web of ground stations that can broadcast the position of Flarm-equipped traffic.
For those of you scratching their heads over that sentence, let me try to explain. Flarm (and its big brother, PowerFlarm) is another inexpensive traffic detection system used by the majority of gliders in the UK and some other aircraft.
The idea is that when a PilotAware unit comes within range of one of these upgraded ground stations, any nearby Flarm traffic will be displayed on your screen along with its position and altitude.
As many of us know, gliders share a number of key features with Stealth bombers, being notoriously almost invisible to radar and the naked eye. With a rapidly growing number of these rebroadcasting stations throughout the country, that's surely got to be a major safety boon.
So that's the theory.
Let's see how it all came together in practice.
My first test was a thirty-minute hop from Denham to Turweston in Buckinghamshire, a route that would take me directly across the self-same cowboy country referred to earlier.
After engine start, the basic drill is to select PilotAware's own wifi address in your iPad or smartphone, wait a few minutes for the GPS to warm up, and finally select PilotAware in your favourite navigation app−in my case SkyDemon.
You can also go directly to PilotAware's home page to configure your settings and check that everything is working correctly. The whole exercise should be fairly simple and, unless you want to change your settings, only needs to be done once.
Except I managed to mess it up totally. Having diligently configured the unit to filter out more distant traffic, I forgot to filter out myself! The fault was entirely my own: I'd skimmed the manual far too quickly. The result was that the moment we were in the air, my SkyDemon began generating non-stop, red-alert alarms about another aircraft sitting bang on top of mine.
It took my snail-paced brain a little while to catch up and realise that this other aircraft was, in fact, my own−but not before I'd scared myself silly looking for it.
A query on PilotAware's highly efficient forum that same evening immediately generated a response on how to put matters right. Basically, you need to enter your aircraft's 'hex code' in your settings−a term I'd never heard before but which turns out to be a number unique to your aircraft, easily retrievable from the website G-INFO.
Then tick a Mode C/S filter option that ensures PilotAware ignores any transmissions from your own transponder. Job done. No more chasing my own tail. Surely on the next flight things would be easier?
Well, yes and no. This time it was a trip to Old Buckenham in Norfolk, taking along another member of my group, Chris Tandy, as a safety pilot.
A wise decision, as it turned out. In addition to running PilotAware on SkyDemon, I decided also to run PilotAware's own virtual radar screen on my iPhone. This is supposed to offer an uncluttered view of traffic using the sort of symbols you'd find on a much more sophisticated TCAS display in an advanced cockpit, but for several thousand pounds less.
I suspect readers can guess where all this is going. Within minutes of takeoff I began to suffer the effects of serious information overload. Two screens to watch. Two entirely different sets of symbols, plus PilotAware's voice calling out an almost constant battery of traffic−it was quickly exhausting.
For the first five or ten minutes I barely looked out of the window. My situational awareness was shot to pieces. Fortunately, Chris was flying the plane, so no real harm done.
But the experience underlined something I should have known already−and which PilotAware's manual emphasises−that this system is explicitly not designed to replace proper scanning techniques, merely to augment them. And even that should be taken with a big pinch of salt, given the traffic it cannot pick up.
Once I'd got that message firmly drilled into my skull, things began to get much better. From now on it was one screen at a time and both our heads out of the cockpit as much as possible. The dedicated PilotAware radar screen was, for me at least, not immediately intuitive and on balance I'd probably ditch it in future.
SkyDemon, on the other hand, gave an excellent display of moving targets that were broadcasting positional data, along with their call signs−albeit I did find the aircraft symbols a smidgen on the small side.
A superb addition is a 'radar scan' display in a bottom corner of the SkyDemon screen, far simpler to interpret than PilotAware's version. If anything gets too close a red spotlight lights up in the direction of that traffic, vividly highlighting the threat.
As for nearby 'bearingless' traffic, this shows up as a circle around your aircraft, colour-coded depending on its perceived threat level. That can certainly get the pulse racing because there's no clue where the offending aircraft actually is.
A saving grace is that PilotAware's voice alert also gives you its vertical distance, a helpful kick-up-the-pants when you're told the target is just 100 feet below and climbing, even if you don't know in which direction. And anyway, if it all gets too much, you can always switch off the bearingless option.
That run to Old Buckenham revealed some of the weaknesses and strengths of PilotAware. The key takeaways were to bring along a safety pilot for your first trials−an absolute must, I would say−and for goodness sake keep things simple.
For me this meant only using one electronic display and always maintaining a good visual scan. I also learned that a busy circuit, like mine at Denham, is definitely not the best place to use the device.
With all those alarms and alerts going off every few seconds there's a real risk of not seeing what is going on around you. In future I'll turn the whole thing off as I join the circuit, keeping my eyes 100% peeled outside instead.
But what about all those gliders out there? On my first two trips I'd seen ADSB and PilotAware traffic, along with some of that bearingless transponding traffic, but no Flarm-equipped gliders. So for my last trial I opted for a route that would, I hoped, put those Open Glider Network re-broadcasting stations to the test. It was time to go glider-hunting.
My plan was to fly a round trip to the south coast and back, taking me close to Lasham, one of the busiest glider sites in Europe. Over the years I've had a number of heart-stopping scares near there, on one unforgettable occasion finding myself very suddenly in the middle of thirty or forty gliders all chasing each other nose-to-tail beneath the same cumulus cloud.
It was entirely my fault: I'd missed the Notam warning about a glider competition. But what would it be like this time, using Pilot Aware?
Frustratingly, the weather on the day was not especially favourable for gliders with a stable atmosphere and a soft drizzle, but off I went anyway, once again with Chris as safety pilot.
This time Farnborough provided a traffic service. By the time we were abeam Basingstoke, the controller was warning about possible gliders in the Lasham circuit several miles away. Disappointingly, we didn't see them on PilotAware, although that may have been because there was no ground station nearby.
But then, as we turned for home, a glider suddenly appeared on the screen, closing in from the left. On SkyDemon the glider symbol is the same as any aircraft but with the letter 'G' next to it. This one was a mere couple of hundred feet above. We craned our necks to look for it. Nothing. Just a big empty sky out there.
We asked the controller−there was nothing on his screen either. The only clue to its presence was the little moving 'G' symbol on the iPad inching closer. Not a threat just yet but that could change in a flash. Then a sudden glint of sunlight revealed a pair of banking wings in our ten o'clock.
It was less than a mile away and descending steeply towards us. But, thanks to PilotAware, we were already turning away. As far as I was concerned, the unit had just paid for itself.
Three flights cannot possibly encompass all the capabilities of a system like PilotAware. But those flights did give me−and, I hope, you reading this−at least a beginner's taste of its possibilities, of its many plusses as well as its few minuses.
Used sensibly, and with a cautious grasp of its limitations, I'd say it offers a quantum leap forward in safety, and at an amazingly low price.
Future proposed enhancements look promising too, with the addition of currently bearingless Mode S traffic soon to be displayed as an actual position on your map, thanks to the rapidly increasing number of those ground stations. And as more operators buy into electronic conspicuity, the more comprehensive the information it displays will be.
Of course, PilotAware is not a collision avoidance device. It doesn't tell you what to do and it doesn't tell you where everything is. But it will help identify many potential threats in time for you to take action before they become more than just threatening. Certainly I'll be taking it aloft with me every time from now on.
And−hopefully−there won't be another occasion when an aircraft suddenly appears out of nowhere on that perfect VFR day, scaring me witless, because I will have done something about it already.
I will, in fact, be 'pilot-aware'.