Aircraft Automatic Direction Finder (ADF)

An automatic direction finder (ADF) operates off of a ground signal transmitted from a NDB. Early radio direction finders (RDF) used the same principle. A vertically polarized antenna was used to transmit LF frequency radio waves in the 190 kHz to 535 kHz range. A receiver on the aircraft was tuned to the transmission frequency of the NDB. Using a loop antenna, the direction to (or from) the antenna could be determined by monitoring the strength of the signal received. This was possible because a radio wave striking a loop antenna broadside induces a null signal. When striking it in the plane of the loop, a much stronger signal is induced. The NDB signals were modulated with unique Morse code pulses that enabled the pilot to identify the beacon to which he or she was navigating.

With RDF systems, a large rigid loop antenna was installed inside the fuselage of the aircraft. The broadside of the antenna was perpendicular to the aircraft’s longitudinal axis. The pilot listened for variations in signal strength of the LF broadcast and maneuvered the aircraft so a gradually increasing null signal was maintained. This took them to the transmitting antenna. When over flown, the null signal gradually faded as the aircraft became farther from the station. The increasing or decreasing strength of the null signal was the only way to determine if the aircraft was flying to or from the NDB. A deviation left or right from the course caused the signal strength to sharply increase due to the loop antenna’s receiving properties.

The ADF improved on this concept. The broadcast frequency range was expanded to include MF up to about 1800 kHz. The heading of the aircraft no longer needed to be changed to locate the broadcast transmission antenna. In early model ADFs, a rotatable antenna was used instead.

The antenna rotated to seek the position in which the signal was null. The direction to the broadcast antenna was shown on an azimuth scale of an ADF indicator in the flight deck. This type of instrument is still found in use today. It has a fixed card with 0° always at the top of a non-rotating dial. A pointer indicates the relative bearing to the station. When the indication is 0°, the aircraft is on course to (or from) the station. [Figure 1]

Aircraft Automatic Direction Finder
Figure 1. Older ADF indicators have nonrotating azimuth cards. 0° is fixed at the top of the instrument and the pointer always indicates the relative bearing to the ADF transmission antenna. To fly to the station, the pilot turns the aircraft until the ADF pointer indicates 0°

As ADF technology progressed, indicators with rotatable azimuth cards became the norm. When an ADF signal is received, the pilot rotates the card so that the present heading is at the top of the scale. This results in the pointer indicating the magnetic bearing to the ADF transmitter. This is more intuitive and consistent with other navigational practices. [Figure 2]

Aircraft Automatic Direction Finder
Figure 2. A movable card ADF indicator can be rotated to put the aircraft’s heading at the top of the scale. The pointer then points to the magnetic bearing the ADF broadcast antenna

In modern ADF systems, an additional antenna is used to remove the ambiguity concerning whether the aircraft is heading to or from the transmitter. It is called a sense antenna. The reception field of the sense antenna is omnidirectional. When combined with the fields of the loop antenna, it forms a field with a single significant null reception area on one side. This is used for tuning and produces an indication in the direction toward the ADF station at all times.

The onboard ADF receiver needs only to be tuned to the correct frequency of the broadcast transmitter for the system to work. The loop and sense antenna are normally housed in a single, low profile antenna housing. [Figure 3]

Aircraft Automatic Direction Finder
Figure 3. The reception fields of a loop and sense antenna combine to create a field with a sharp null on just one side. This removes directional ambiguity when navigating to an ADF station

Any ground antenna transmitting LF or MF radio waves in range of the aircraft receiver’s tuning capabilities can be used for ADF. This includes those from AM radio stations. Audible identifier tones are loaded on the NDB carrier waves. Typically a two-character Morse code designator is used. With an AM radio station transmission, the AM broadcast is heard instead of a station identifier code. The frequency for an NDB transmitter is given on an aeronautical chart next to a symbol for the transmitter. The identifying designator is also given. [Figure 4]

Aircraft Automatic Direction Finder
Figure 4. Nondirectional broadcast antenna in the LF and medium frequency range are used for ADF navigation

ADF receivers can be mounted in the flight deck with the controls accessible to the user. This is found on many general aviation aircraft. Alternately, the ADF receiver is mounted in a remote avionics bay with only the control head in the flight deck. Dual ADF receivers are common. ADF information can be displayed on the ADF indicators mentioned or it can be digital. Modern, flat, multipurpose electronic displays usually display the ADF digitally. [Figure 5] When ANT is selected on an ADF receiver, the loop antenna is cut out and only the sense antenna is active. This provides better multi-directional reception of broadcasts in the ADF frequency range, such as weather or AWAS broadcasts.

Aircraft Automatic Direction Finder
Figure 5. A cockpit mountable ADF receiver used on general aviation aircraft

When the best frequency oscillator (BFO) is selected on an ADF receiver/controller, an internal beat frequency oscillator is connected to the IF amplifier inside the ADF receiver. This is used when an NDB does not transmit a modulated signal.

Continued refinements to ADF technology has brought it to its current state. The rotating receiving antenna is replaced by a fixed loop with a ferrite core. This increases sensitivity and allows a smaller antenna to be used. The most modern ADF systems have two loop antennas mounted at 90° to each other. The received signal induces voltage that is sent to two stators in a resolver or goniometer. The goniometer stators induce voltage in a rotor that correlates to the signal of the fixed loops. The rotor is driven by a motor to seek the null. The same motor rotates the pointer in the flight deck indicator to show the relative or magnetic bearing to the station. [Figure 6]

Aircraft Automatic Direction Finder
Figure 6. In modern ADF, a rotor in a goniometer replaces a the rotating loop antenna used in earlier models

Technicians should note that the installation of the ADF antenna is critical to a correct indication since it is a directional device. Calibration with the longitudinal axis of the fuselage or nose of the aircraft is important. A single null reception area must exist in the correct direction. The antenna must be oriented so the ADF indicates station location when the aircraft is flying toward it rather than away. Follow all manufacturer’s instructions.

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