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Cheap And Nasty Obstacle Avoidance System!

Posted on 16th April 2017

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I am very concerned about the news now percolating out about the crash of Rescue 116, which collided with Blackrock Island on 14 March. The latest report from the BBC (here) contains the very worrying information that Blackrock (an island which is well known because it has a lighthouse on it, and is therefore marked on all marine and air maps of the area) was not in the database of the obstacle-avoidance system installed on the helicopter.

Many people are probably now thinking "How terrible!" and yes, it is really dreadful that such a well known and well mapped obstacle was not in the system's database, and I am sure that someone is rushing to roll out updates to the databases of all such systems, but that is not what worries me. What concerns me is that an obstacle-avoidance system apparently relies only on a database of known obstacles; there doesn't seem to be any integration of radar data into the system.

Just look at the photo in the BBC report: the island is about the size of an aircraft carrier, and should be easily visible on radar from a long way off. Any useful obstacle-avoidance system should help to avoid not only fixed obstacles, but also mobile obstacles like ships and other aircraft. So, something is wrong: either the Irish coast-guard bought a cheap and nasty system which doesn't use radar data, or the radar was not working (either switched off, or not fit for purpose).

I began my professional career in avionics, so I do have some idea what I am talking about.

Either way, someone needs to be held accountable. In the meantime, I will not be volunteering to fly on any Irish coast-guard helicopters.