Wireless communications of the 21st century are far more advanced than even Alexander Graham Bell could have ever imagined, with far-reaching satellites strategically positioned in space, enabling the communications most commonly in use today that continue to save lives around the world.
Satellites orbiting the earth tirelessly send signals to other satellites, to ground stations, and eventually to other countries, and these are the world’s most critical form of wireless communication. While satellites do more than just ‘ping’ here and there, the most common satellite wireless communication in use is the cellular, along with the tried and true broadcast radio.
But the success of each commercial and military air-med rescue mission depends on the functionality of the ground-air teams working together, and the reliability of the communications and the connections. These can be affected by the frequency in use, and more specifically, the ‘band’ of the satellite that ultimately delivers high-speed broadband internet connectivity and digital-audio transmission of information.
Even though one system does not fit all, by and large, the majority of air-medical rescue organizations, both military and commercial, rely on satellite communications technology engineered in various forms and products. They have similar features and benefits, which have become the basic necessities for conducting and managing ground/air comms during large-scale events.
‘Sweeping’ surfaces and ‘Pinging’ satellites
Using his Apple iPad tablet on the ForeFlight software program, US Coast Guard (USCG) MH-65 Dolphin helicopter pilot Lieutenant Commander Kyle Cuttie, operating out of USCG Air Station, New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA), tags a callsign while conducting a ‘sweep’ – flying at a low altitude of about 500ft to look for distress signs, such as downed power lines during a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.
satellite connectivity and integrated communications are vital to the efficient mission work of air medical rescues when managing a storm response
Collaborating with the National Guard and other military partners, Cuttie said: “Using our USCG-issued laptops, we can view military grid systems using the program’s grid overlay to prepare ‘sweeps’ assigned to specific crew.” In every phase, satellite connectivity and integrated communications are vital to the efficient mission work of air medical rescues when managing a storm response, he added.
The USCG has two major functions: surface and air search to deconflict aerial response, then to share assets. “Once a surface and air search mission is activated, communications issues are sent to experts, then to state command centers,” explained Cuttie. “We leverage our different strengths as a team.”
For the future, the USCG is transitioning to the UH-60 Jay Hawk this coming fall. “It’s exciting to have more robust helicopters to add to the [MH] 65, which are venerable assets,” he said.
Establishing frequencies and tagging locations
The USCG Air Station NOLA has invented stakeholders with respect to aerial assets and communications operations, including the use of VHF radios with 800 megahertz (MHz) marine frequencies, reported Cuttie. “The Guard uses the VHF marine frequencies to talk with mariners who use handheld radios. We confirm the aircraft comms systems are loaded with the appropriate codes to talk with the ground components,” he added.
During large-scale events, the USCG interacts with the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) using data tracking to handle national data requests
During Hurricane Ida, Cuttie said the crew lost communication with FAA air traffic control (ATC) in Houston, during an evacuation from Houston back to NOLA, necessitating the USCG’s emergency frequency to airlines en route to Houston. “The USCG pilot can see the different frequencies, but local law enforcement does not have VHF marine capabilities, although the frequencies are delineated for local hospitals,” he said.
During large-scale events, the USCG interacts with the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) using data tracking to handle national data requests, which is rolled into the same response, he disclosed. “We establish frequencies, air-to-ground communications, as a test first overhead a couple of feet above to allow for a flooding situation,” reported Cuttie. “We can ping a satellite to communicate with the district command center, then tagging to identify the locations.”
Data used in flight and in communications with the command center is made possible through the USCGs ‘military electronic flight bag’ integrated with the ForeFlight software. This generates a custom creation of overlays with geographic shapefiles or geo-referenced charts, as well as diagrams and procedures that pilots place onto global IFR en route charts and other base maps, for a seamless moving map, he added.
To continue their current technology, the USCG plans to refine One View CG 1B software, a common operations platform, that allows the command center to process and populate information into the geographic information system (GIS), activating a new call for service or a new case.
Aerial firefighting: flying beyond visual line of sight
With its robust fleet of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, CAL FIRE’s advanced communications systems through unmanned aerial systems (UAS) allows the advantage of flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) to send and receive critical information.
“BVLOS within the temporary flight restriction (TFR) utilizing FAA certificate of authorization, UAS teams operate safely at night when smoke conditions wouldn’t allow for manned aviation,” revealed Brian Renner, Division Chief, CAL FIRE Tactical Air Operations. “Providing this real-time intelligence allows for better planning and greater cost-effectiveness, providing safer operations.”
Each CAL FIRE Hawk is equipped with two integrated multi-band UHF/VHF-AM and two VHF-FM radio packages, with additional capability to install a third VHF-FM auxiliary transmitter/receiver
Flying a sensor payload consisting of a visual optical and/or infrared camera, UAS pilots supplement the intelligence provided by manned aviation, he stated. “Fixed wing intelligence and reconnaissance missions provide real-time situation information regarding the fire’s location, perimeter, and progression, digitally sent to fire commanders to update maps and aid in decision-making,” he said. “Fire intelligence can also be relayed over the radio from these intel platforms to fire line supervisors actively engaged in perimeter control and structure defense.”
Each CAL FIRE Hawk is equipped with two integrated multi-band UHF/VHF-AM and two VHF-FM radio packages, with additional capability to install a third VHF-FM auxiliary transmitter/receiver. Furthermore, the CAL FIRE Hawk has an integrated FlightCell control head that provides satellite and cellular communication.
The CAL FIRE Hawk is also equipped with an AXNES wireless internal communications system (WICS) that enables line-of-sight communication with rescue personnel. The AXNES WICS allows crew members continued hands-free voice-activated-VOX communication, eliminating the constant need for hand and arm signals while maintaining real-time voice communications during critical operational situations. Additionally, the PNG system frees the crew from the encumbrance of wired connections to the internal communications system (ICS), minimizing the potential for snag hazards and allowing the ability to move freely within as well as outside the operating aircraft or platform.
“The private sector has recognized the demand signal for more aviation assets and improved technologies,” said Renner. “There have been advancements in air tanker and helicopter drop systems, avionics, and all aspects of UAS.”
Experiences from a military-trained commercial pilot
Retiring as a US Army captain in 2020, John Alderete received training in the art and science of navigation and map-reading, which was a great foundation during his previous career flying the UH-60 Black Hawk in 2006.
“Back then you had to be an aviator, raw and real, as well as a navigator using a stationary map, which meant you had to know your area while in constant communications with flight navigation, and knowing your range of control without any communications with the FAA,” he explained.
Later, Alderete was trained on the FalconView, when the military adopted the Windows-based program that provided a mapping system with geographically-referenced overlays. “Essentially, FalconView became the predecessor to the electronic flight bag iPad,” said Alderete.
The advancements of technology have certainly reduced the pilot’s overall workload, while at the same time the new software programs improve the pilot-system interaction that ultimately saves lives, especially during night missions
Fast forward to his current position as a base pilot supervisor with Global Medical Response (GMR), where Alderete uses an electronic Apple iPad Mini 5 that features an illuminating day-night version of the night vision goggle (NVG) screen compatible with Google, coupled with the Garmin 650 and 500. Supported by the iPad’s backup system ensuring that he’s clear of TFRs, Alderete said the technology today is great for reconnaissance missions, as he commandeers the multifunctional glass cockpit display features gauges and backup screen gauges with moving maps to ensure greater situational awareness.
“The advancements of technology have certainly reduced the pilot’s overall workload, while at the same time the new software programs improve the pilot-system interaction that ultimately saves lives, especially during night missions,” claimed Alderete.
Continuous flying through the SkyTrac system, integrated through the satellite, allows for a 15-second ping-to-sim communication allowing for an immediate response, if necessary. The SkyTrac system used as a GMR pilot improves sat comms by providing a vast amount of assistance for pilots, notably during the initial flight requests through dispatch.
“All I have to do is get on the Garmin, look at the weather, then once I depart, follow the Baldwin Risk Management Software, which is leagues ahead of the US Army, then file the flight plan through flight.com,” he announced. “The use of this system definitely saves lives, 100 per cent.”
Pushing the envelope of technology
The vast network of Air Methods’ interconnected control centers uses satellite monitoring from the fleet of aircraft outfitted with Honeywell Tracker III/IIIa systems, to ‘tap into and transmit the data’ on aircraft movements, including Flight Data Monitoring (FDM) capabilities required by the FAA. The Honeywell Tracker IIIa system provides livestream warning lights on the aircraft display, such as low fuel indicator cockpit display, directly to the team in the operational control center, providing awareness in near-real time, he explained.
The technology also allows clinical teams to communicate with stroke teams and cardiac teams ‘on the ground’ at the hospitals to activate those units to prevent any delays to treatment
“Our flight operations system, Complete Flight, provides full integration of company information and personnel in operations,” said Jason Quisling, Vice President, Flight Operations/AirCom at Air Methods. “Pilots utilize an Electronic Flight Bag to receive information about the aircraft’s inspection status, pilot qualifications and/or proficiency status to track operational information related to the flight.”
The company collaborates with hospitals during large-scale disaster response events to move assets and people for specific support, with the ability to provide satellite tracking in a more collective view, he explained. “The technology also allows clinical teams to communicate with stroke teams and cardiac teams ‘on the ground’ at the hospitals to activate those units to prevent any delays to treatment,” explained Quisling.
“Our emergency system works with healthcare centers, which are tied into the county sites and federal emergency operations centers (EOCs) and integrated and shared with our partners, to coordinate communications to access Air Methods’ assets,” he said. Ultimately, every request is filtered to one of our communication centers, then through the computer-aided dispatch centers with information directly to the pilot and our OCC, while simultaneously displaying any hazards en route, added Quisling.
“Communications systems are integrated through the helmet, which represents a critical piece of safety equipment for us, notably during night-time missions, which are 50 per cent of our flights,” he said. “The ability to communicate internally with the crew in the cabin while protecting their hearing is essential to safe operations. We depend on our comms systems and we’ve begun exploring wireless connectivity so the crew doesn’t have to plug in a jack to access the intercom,” stated Quisling. “The wireless system allows the crews to be free of any wires to communicate with the pilot while conducting accident scene work from several hundred feet away.”
Although we have the use of radio communications using 800MHz channels, this new technology involves noise-canceling, clear communication without the background noise and static, he said.
In recent years, the helicopter market has embraced advancements in rear communications as well, such as the ‘active noise reduction’ technology integrated in the helmet or headset. However, rear crewmembers, such as hoist operators, often experience wind-induced noises when speaking, said retired MH-47E pilot Chief Warrant Officer Five (CW5) Scott Hedges, CEO-Founder, Paraclete Aviation Life Support, whose military/law enforcement scenario explains one example.
Customized technology is an option for the sniper to stay plugged into the ICS, while wearing the tactical headset and talking through their tactical radio to their team without bothering the pilot
“SWAT team snipers on the helicopter must maintain comms with the pilot and with their maneuvering elements on the ground,” he stated. “Because of wind noise, when the pilot opens the mic to speak the noise ‘blows’ the pilot out, and may cause the pilot to turn off the internal communications system (ICS) comms with the sniper. Customized technology is an option for the sniper to stay plugged into the ICS, while wearing the tactical headset and talking through their tactical radio to their team without bothering the pilot.”
Paraclete Aviation Life Support in Tennessee added the wireless communications system to their helmets with the recent North American agreement with GlobalSys, France, announced at the recent HAI Expo. “We want to push the envelope to look at the integration of wireless communications and we’re interested to see how the new helmets may be implemented with the GlobalSys communications system,” he said.
“For the future, Air Methods is now defining user requirements for the ‘Next Gen’ capabilities for our operations, transforming the AirCom communications center in Omaha, Nebraska,” commented Quisling. “We initiated a transformation project last year focused on process procedures and revamping our services to the highest quality, both hard- and software enhancements through Flight Vector to increase computer-aided design (CAD) functions and identify ways of integrating with the local community,” he declared.
Complete Flight EFB and ForeFlight aviation flight planning are part of the future technological system that will grow with the company moving forward into the future, he said. “Our future is exciting with improvements of a mobile app in the field on the horizon, enhancements in our Honeywell Tracking System, maturing to an accredited communications center with quality benchmarks that we will use to ensure the best in class capabilities and services,” proclaimed Quisling.