Aircraft Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS)

The ever increasing volume of air traffic has caused a corresponding increase in concern over collision avoidance. Ground-based radar, traffic control, and visual vigilance are no longer adequate in today’s increasingly crowded skies. Onboard collision avoidance equipment, long a staple in larger aircraft, is now common in general aviation aircraft. New applications of electronic technology combined with lower costs make this possible.

Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS)

Traffic collision avoidance systems (TCAS) are transponder based air-to-air traffic monitoring and alerting systems. There are two classes of TCAS. TCAS I was developed to accommodate the general aviation community and regional airlines. This system identifies traffic in a 35–40 mile range of the aircraft and issues Traffic Advisories (TA) to assist pilots in visual acquisition of intruder aircraft. TCAS I is mandated on aircraft with 10 to 30 seats.

TCAS II is a more sophisticated system. It is required internationally in aircraft with more than 30 seats or weighing more than 15,000 kg. TCAS II provides the information of TCAS I, but also analyzes the projected flightpath of approaching aircraft. If a collision or near miss is imminent, the TCAS II computer issues a Resolution Advisory (RA). This is an aural command to the pilot to take a specific evasive action (i.e., DESCEND). The computer is programmed such that the pilot in the encroaching aircraft receives an RA for evasive action in the opposite direction (if it is TCAS II equipped). [Figure 1]

Aviation Communication and Navigation
Figure 1. Traffic collision and avoidance system (TCAS) uses an aircraft’s transponder to interrogate and receive replies from other aircraft in close proximity. The TCAS computer alerts the pilot as to the presence of an intruder aircraft and displays the aircraft on a screen in the cockpit. Additionally, TCAS II equipped aircraft receive evasive maneuver commands from the computer that calculates trajectories of the aircraft to predict potential collisions or near misses before they become unavoidable

The transponder of an aircraft with TCAS is able to interrogate the transponders of other aircraft nearby using SSR technology (Mode C and Mode S). This is done with a 1030 MHz signal. Interrogated aircraft transponders reply with an encoded 1090 MHz signal that allows the TCAS computer to display the position and altitude of each aircraft. Should the aircraft come within the horizontal or vertical distances shown in Figure 1, an audible TA is announced. The pilot must decide whether to take action and what action to take. TCAS II equipped aircraft use continuous reply information to analyze the speed and trajectory of target aircraft in close proximity. If a collision is calculated to be imminent, an RA is issued.

TCAS target aircraft are displayed on a screen on the flight deck. Different colors and shapes are used to depict approaching aircraft depending on the imminent threat level. Since RAs are currently limited to vertical evasive maneuvers, some stand-alone TCAS displays are electronic vertical speed indicators. Most aircraft use some version of an electronic HSI on a navigational screen or page to display TCAS information. [Figure 2] A multifunction display may depict TCAS and weather radar information on the same screen. [Figure 3] A TCAS control panel [Figure 4] and computer are required to work with a compatible transponder and its antenna(s). Interface with EFIS or other previously installed or selected display(s) is also required.

Aviation Communication and Navigation
Figure 2. TCAS information displayed on an electronic vertical speed indicator

Aviation Communication and Navigation
Figure 3. TCAS information displayed on a multifunction display. An open diamond indicates a target; a solid diamond represents a target that is within 6 nautical miles of 1,2000 feet vertically. A yellow circle represents a target that generates a TA (25-48 seconds before contact). A red square indicates a target that generates an RA in TCAS II (contact within 35 seconds). A (+) indicates the target aircraft is above and a (-) indicates it is below. The arrows show if the target is climbing or descending

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Figure 4. This control panel from a Boeing 767 controls the transponder for ATC use and TCAS

TCAS may be referred to as airborne collision avoidance system (ACAS), which is the international name for the same system. TCAS II with the latest revisions is known as Version 7. The accuracy and reliability of this TCAS information is such that pilots are required to follow a TCAS RA over an ATC command.

Automatic Dependant Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B)

Collision avoidance is a significant part of the FAA’s NextGen plan for transforming the National Airspace System (NAS). Increasing the number of aircraft using the same quantity of airspace and ground facilities requires the implementation of new technologies to maintain a high level of performance and safety. The successful proliferation of global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), such as GPS, has led to the development of a collision avoidance system known as automatic dependant surveillance broadcast (ADS-B). ADS-B is an integral part of NextGen program. The implementation of its ground and airborne infrastructure is currently underway. ADS-B is active in parts of the United States and around the world. [Figure 5]

Aircraft Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems
Figure 5. Low power requirements allow remote ADS-B stations with only solar or propane support. This is not possible with ground radar due to high power demands which inhibit remote area radar coverage for air traffic purposes

ADS-B is considered in two segments: ADS-B OUT and ADS-B IN. ADS-B OUT combines the positioning information available from a GPS receiver with on-board flight status information, i.e. location including altitude, velocity, and time. It then broadcasts this information to other ADS-B equipped aircraft and ground stations. [Figure 6]

Aircraft Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems
Figure 6. ADS-B OUT uses satellites to identify the position aircraft. This position is then broadcast to other aircraft and to ground stations along with other flight status information

Two different frequencies are used to carry these broadcasts with data link capability. The first is an expanded use of the 1090 MHz Mode-S transponder protocol known as 1090 ES. The second, largely being introduced as a new broadband solution for general aviation implementation of ADS-B, is at 978 MHz. A 978 universal access transceiver (UAT) is used to accomplish this. An omni-directional antenna is required in addition to the GPS antenna and receiver. Airborne receivers of an ADS-B broadcast use the information to plot the location and movement of the transmitting aircraft on a flight deck display similar to TCAS. [Figure 7]

Aircraft Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems
Figure 7. A cockpit display of ADS-B generated targets (left) and an ADS-B airborne receiver with antenna (right)

Inexpensive ground stations (compared to radar) are constructed in remote and obstructed areas to proliferate ADS-B. Ground stations share information from airborne ADS-B broadcasts with other ground stations that are part of the air traffic management system (ATMS). Data is transferred with no need for human acknowledgement. Microwave and satellite transmissions are used to link the network.

For traffic separation and control, ADS-B has several advantages over conventional ground-based radar. The first is the entire airspace can be covered with a much lower expense. The aging ATC radar system that is in place is expensive to maintain and replace. Additionally, ADS-B provides more accurate information since the vector state is generated from the aircraft with the help of GPS satellites. Weather is a greatly reduced factor with ADS-B. Ultra high frequency GPS transmissions are not affected. Increased positioning accuracy allows for higher density traffic flow and landing approaches, an obvious requirement to operate more aircraft in and out of the same number of facilities. The higher degree of control available also enables routing for fewer weather delays and optimal fuel burn rates. Collision avoidance is expanded to include runway incursion from other aircraft and support vehicles on the surface of an airport.

ADS-B IN offers features not available in TCAS. Equipped aircraft are able to receive abundant data to enhance situational awareness. Traffic information services-broadcast (TIS-B) supply traffic information from non-ADS-B aircraft and ADS-B aircraft on a different frequency. Ground radar monitoring of surface targets, and any traffic data in the linked network of ground stations is sent via ADS-B IN to the flight deck. This provides a more complete picture than air-to-air only collision avoidance. Flight information services-broadcast (FIS-B) are also received by ADS-B IN. Weather text and graphics, ATIS information, and NOTAMS are able to be received in aircraft that have 987 UAT capability. [Figure 8]

Aircraft Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems
Figure 8. ADS-B IN enables weather and traffic information to be sent into the flight deck.  In addition to AWOS weather, NWS can also be transmitted

ADS-B test units are available for trained maintenance personnel to verify proper operation of ADS-B equipment. This is critical since close tolerance of air traffic separation depends on accurate data from each aircraft and throughout all components of the ADS-B system. [Figure 9]

Aircraft Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems
Figure 9. An ADS-B test unit

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