In the past year, only a couple of hundred users have downloaded a prototype of a free mobile device app that’s designed to help private aircraft pilots record digital flight data with the aim of improving safety. But the app’s developer said it gives federal regulators a start to better address general aviation safety issues.
“At this stage, we have around 200 hours of data collected,” Matt Pollack, who led the development of the General Aviation Airborne Recording Device, or GAARD, app at MITRE, said in a recent news release. “That’s not a lot, but it’s the beginning of what we hope is going to be a rich data source.”
While the safety of commercial air travel has improved considerably over the last several years mainly due to the collection and analysis of flight data, the same can’t be said for general aviation, according to the release. Private aircraft aren’t outfitted to record digital flight data and such equipment is largely cost prohibitive.
“Without some way to collect data, it’s challenging for the GA community and [the Federal Aviation Administration] to identify and address safety issues that affect general aviation,” he said.
In 2012, the FAA asked the non-profit MITRE, which operates federally sponsored research and development centers, to find low-cost ways to collect such general aviation data. The organization developed GAARD, which is targeted at smaller general aviation aircraft and can take advantage of GPS sensors on the devices to track a plane’s movements, the release said.
Additionally, they found the app can also work with an onboard sensor system called the Attitude Heading Reference System, which determines an aircraft’s position in space. And if an aircraft doesn’t have an onboard system, a portable one can be purchased for $600 to $1,500. The app can also connect wirelessly with another onboard system called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, which can broadcast or receive aircraft position data
GAARD allows pilots to record flight data such as latitude, longitude, altitude, direction of travel and speed. During initial set-up, pilots enter profile information about themselves and their aircraft, which helps federal regulators better understand the general aviation community.
And before a flight, pilots also input basic information about the flight such as the intended destination and whether it’s for training or non-training purposes. When a flight begins, all a pilot has to do is press a record button on the app and stop it after the flight has ended.
“Later on, when users have access to the Internet, they can hit a button to upload the data – with identifying information removed – to a repository called the National General Aviation Flight Information Database [NGAFID], which then provides the data securely to MITRE,” Pollack said. “The NGAFID also directly provides the pilots with several additional flight analysis features.”
At this point, he said that the data becomes part of the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing, which is a joint data sharing collaboration between the FAA and aviation community, including more than 40 commercial airlines. The collaboration “proactively” analyzes all such data to help them identify safety issues and trends.
He added that the app also has several built-in features such as graphing and mapping that pilots may find useful in reviewing the performance of their flights.
The data collected so far by GAARD, which was released last October, isn’t enough and is less comprehensive than data collected from commercial airlines and others. But once enough is collected, it could help regulators and others spot safety issues.
“For instance, maybe the data will show that most of the GA flights going into a particular airport have a steeper descent than they ought to,” MITRE software applications develop Jeff Stein said. “Once we identify a trend like that, we can look at why it’s occurring.”
MITRE and the FAA have also developed a new version of the app called fleetGAARD to target corporate and business operators that have older aircraft not equipped with flight data systems.