Honeywell’s latest iteration of its Iridium satellite-based communication and aircraft tracking product, Sky Connect Tracker III, has been joined with its Zing health and usage monitoring system (HUMS) to create an integrated system that can now also send alerts of potential maintenance problems back to base.
The communication part of Sky Connect Tracker III provides concurrent voice and text, along with flight tracking. This means that through their headsets pilots can talk on the phone while simultaneously sending a text. Meanwhile, the flight tracking part is sending the position of the helicopter at regular intervals. It can also monitor flight data parameters. The system uses the Iridium satellite network, meaning it works where Iridium is available, which is anywhere in the world.
When connected with a Zing HUMS, Sky Connect will send automatic, real-time maintenance alerts of anomalies and exceedances detected by the HUMS to operations and maintenance personnel. Unless the anomaly also happens to be detected by the helicopter’s own systems, the pilot will have no idea that any problem has arisen. However, if needed, the people at the operator’s base, who are tracking the aircraft and receiving maintenance alerts via Sky Connect, can call or text a message back to the aircraft.
Seeing how the system works in an aircraft and at an ad hoc ground station really shows what it does. That’s why Honeywell is offering to show Sky Connect Tracker III and Zing in operation together in the company’s AS350 test helicopter (N350FD) here at Heli-Expo ‘13. AIN went along on a flight on Sunday for a lesson in flight tracking and HUMS alerting. The “ground station” was a laptop in an Atlantic Aviation conference room at McCarran International Airport.
Compared with the other systems in N350FD, such as Sentinel and Observer, Sky Connect sits unobtrusively, almost hidden from view in the center console between the pilot seats. The device resembles a nav radio, with the addition of a row of telephone buttons. It is powerful, though. While we were still sitting on the ramp, rotors turning, Honeywell senior test pilot Ron Wayman demonstrated simultaneously making a phone call and sending a text to co-worker Dave Tiefisher, aircraft maintenance and flight test operations, who sat with his laptop in the FBO. Meanwhile, Sky Connect was simultaneously and automatically sending tracking information to Tiefisher’s laptop.
The Zing HUMS system is invisible to the pilot. Without the integration with Sky Connect, the HUMS data can be downloaded only after the aircraft returns to base. With the connection, the HUMS data zips back to the base at the speed of light.
N350FD has 24 Zing HUMS sensors, but they send alerts only when there’s a problem. So Honeywell engineers have installed a HUMS demo button on the cockpit panel. Wayman pushed the button a few times, sending SBDs, or “short burst data” messages. SBDs contain no more than about a dozen letters. Using simple abbreviations, this is all that’s needed to tell the maintenance staff what’s going on inside the helicopter. He explained that we’d be able to see the data messages on Tiefisher’s laptop when we got back.
The fact that the helicopter was only about 200 yards from the conference room did not seem to phase Wayman and Tiefisher, but I could not help thinking that the phone call, text, tracking data and simulated HUMS alerts traveled some 485 miles one way to one of 66 Iridium satellites in low-earth orbit and then back another 485 miles. The satellites orbit pole to pole at a speed of about 17,000 mph.
Flying the AS350 with Sky Connect and Zing was almost a nonevent. Wayman sent some more texts and also demonstrated the Honeywell Tcas (traffic collision alerting system). Meanwhile, the flight tracker silently sent out frequent SBDs.
Back at Atlantic Aviation, Tiefisher proudly showed us the track we had flown and the SBD messages sent, including those from the HUMS demo button.
An integrated Sky Connect Tracker III and Zing HUMS for an AS350 costs about $90,000, according to Rob Richardson, Honeywell marketing and product manager, aero services. For larger helicopters, such as a Bell 412, the system runs from $90,000 to $135,000. Sky Connect alone costs about $15,000.
Richardson said several large helicopter operators have shown interest in the combined system, including PHI, Bristow and Chevron.