Maintaining safety is too important to leave to others.
We see it every day on TV: “AT&T has the largest 5G network!” “Verizon. The leader in 5G!” 5G is a good thing, right? It promises clearer cell phone and data signals in more remote locations and better connectivity and voice communications. But for the helicopter industry, and for helicopter air ambulance (HAA) operators in particular, the 5G rollout could severely disrupt our operations.
As an HAA operator, my greatest concern is the safety of my crews and the patients we transport. One way we mitigate the inherent risks in our work is to provide pilots with effective tools to manage flight safety. Anything that lessens the effectiveness of these tools should concern all of us. And that’s exactly what will happen in December 2021 with the introduction of 5G cellular networks.
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sold a portion of the radio frequency spectrum for more than $80 billion to telecommunications companies so they could expand their services in what is called the 5G, or 5th generation, mobile network. Unfortunately, the frequencies that the 5G network operates in are directly adjacent to the frequencies our aircraft radio (or radar) altimeters use to help pilots find their location and avoid hitting the ground. Studies show that this proximity will cause radio altimeters to display scrambled, delayed, or missing data, particularly when close to 5G transmission towers and below 500 ft. above ground level.
Our industry, and in particular Helicopter Association International, has been working behind the scenes to seek a resolution to this problem. Regulators and civil aviation authorities in other countries, including Canada’s Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) department, have formally acknowledged 5G interference with radio altimeters and are taking steps to mitigate safety concerns.
In the United States, the FCC has authority over spectrum policy, but they have done very little to address the issue. The FAA has no authority over spectrum, but the agency has acknowledged interference issues with radio altimeters, stating that it will ensure safety in the National Airspace System after 5G goes into operation on Dec. 5 by employing the same tools it currently uses, including NOTAMs, airworthiness directives, and updated technical standard orders. While certainly helpful in maintaining safety, using NOTAMs across the country to cordon off airspace identified to present a 5G radio interference concern is far from an ideal scenario.
The real-world impact of 5G interference with radio altimeters in HAA operations is worrisome for a couple of reasons. First, our operators are not always going from known location to known location. We land on highways and in ball fields, parks, and meadows to rescue the sick and injured and deliver them to advanced medical care. Radio interference simply won’t be avoidable in some situations. When it does happen, any number of aircraft systems that are integrated with radio altimeters can become unreliable, cause a distraction, or trigger a misinformed decision.
Further, our operators are dispatched when every second counts. Altering a flight path to avoid known interference areas will lessen our ability to provide the most important benefit a helicopter can deliver: speed in medical care.
So you’re asking: isn’t there a technical fix for this? Unfortunately, interference-resistant radio altimeters are not readily available. Manufacturers are working to change this, of course, but the FAA’s rigorous certification process will take years.
Filters have been identified as one option, but their effectiveness will vary, depending on the type of radio altimeter and the type of aircraft operation. In any case, retrofitting radio altimeters with out-of-band filters by Dec. 5 is a practical impossibility and does not offer a comprehensive solution to mitigate the risks. And more to the point: why should I, an HAA operator, pay for a new piece of technical equipment so that another corporation in another industry can profit?
So what can we, the helicopter operators and helicopter support industry, do in the face of this looming bureaucratic mess? I urge everyone reading this to visit rotor.org/radalt, where you can sign up for HAI Legislative Alerts and learn more about our industry’s efforts to talk sense to those that work in the FAA and FCC.
Inflation, regulation, COVID, climate change: these are the threats we hear about daily. Like all of you, the introduction of 5G mobile networks was nowhere on my radar scope—but it is now! The thought of shooting a nighttime approach to a dark field in the wooded hills, with my radio altimeter going off unexpectedly, is not the level of safety I want for me or my passengers.
Visit rotor.org/radalt TODAY. Solving this issue is too important to leave in the hands of others.